By The Gang of Four: Debby Stark (email@example.com), Kay, Kathy Pernisek (firstname.lastname@example.org), and Cindy Ray (Crayz2sew@aol.com)
Summary: The mysterious Nigerian princess from Clark's past shows up in Metropolis, making Lois more than a little jealous.
Lois Lane usually enjoyed the Metropolis Press Club holiday gatherings because there was no set agenda, the food was good and plentiful, the level of conversation was high, and she was often the center of attention since the female:male ratio hovered around 1:10.
But today's Welcome Spring! Luncheon was grinding to a slow halt for her because across the room, surrounded by a load of Metropolis' top-flight male reporters, was an intriguing black woman dressed in some no-doubt fake African get up. The lengths *some* people would go to to get a little attention! Lois, who had thrown on just any old chiffon brown thing to wear, finished her drink and looked around for another and saw Clark Kent sampling some hors d'oeurves.
"I'm surprised *you're* not over there, too, begging for some tidbit from that… that woman," she said, trying to keep all signs of resentment out of her voice.
"I don't have to be," he said after choosing a cracker with some cheese and a shrimp on it and taking care not to drop it. "I already know her. She's that Nigerian princess I tried to tell you about once but you weren't interested. Tonight she and I are…"
"What Nigerian princess?" Lois interrupted, before Clark could finish.
"The one I learned ballroom dancing from, remember?"
"You never told me that!"
"Yes, I did."
"When?" Lois asked petulantly.
"At the party Lex had to announce his plans for his own space station."
"That was forever ago! How can you expect me to remember that? And who says I wasn't interested? I'm sure I was just…busy."
"Oh, you were busy all right—trying to get an interview with Lex—"
"If you don't mind, I'd rather not talk about Lex. So what are you doing with this princess, anyway?"
"We're going to a diplomatic reception for her uncle, the King—"
"You're kidding! There's going to be all sorts of business and political bigwigs there! I can't imagine the kind of quotes you could get there!"
"Lois, I'm going for fun, not for work."
"So, this is some kind of date?" Lois asked, trying not to let the jealousy show in her voice.
"Well, not ex—well, yes, I guess it *is* a date," Clark said, smiling a little at Lois' show of jealousy.
Before Clark could say another word, Lois was off looking for Perry.
There was no way she was going to let Clark scoop her on this diplomatic reception thing. She was going to go to that reception if it was the last thing she did…
Later that evening, as Lois worked the reception room in her best "get the news" manner, her eyes were drawn again and again to Clark and his date. Of course she'd always enjoyed seeing Clark in a tuxedo, and she had to admit that he and the Princess made a stunning couple. Which wouldn't have bothered her if they hadn't looked so… comfortable… together.
Every time Clark bent towards the Princess, every time he touched her elbow, every time they laughed together, Lois felt the muscles in her jaw clench tighter.
"Relax, Lane," she told herself as she dragged her eyes from Clark yet again. "What he does in his spare time is *his* choice."
Somehow, this thought didn't help at all.
Deciding that she had talked with everyone who might have anything newsworthy to say, she found an unoccupied table and sat down wearily. She pulled a small notebook and pencil out of her evening bag and started jotting down bits and pieces of information she'd picked up throughout the evening.
The sound of a chair being moved near her broke her concentration. Startled, she looked up to see…
Clark, escorting the Princess to her table. Stunned by this sudden turn of events, Lois jumped up and stood at attention. For once, her auto-pilot kicked in, and protocol training took over.
"Lois, I would like to present her Royal Highness, the Princess—"
Lois never heard the rest. Her mind went blank—fatigue, frustration, and a little bit of jealousy had set in.
"Ms. Lane, this is a great honor. I have read everything you and Mr. Kent have written. I feel I know you almost as well as I know Clark." The Princess smiled at Lois and extended her hand in friendship. Clark just beamed with pride. Lois returned the handshake, but she was so startled, she was practically speechless.
"You, uh, you've read my, uh, our articles?" Lois could have kicked herself. Stupidity had set in, too.
"My, yes. And, if it weren't for Clark's article on the African Burial Ground discovered recently in Metropolis, my uncle would never have given his approval for the special exhibit of West African art that will be arriving here next month." The Princess smiled at Clark, and gave him such a look of admiration, it was not lost on Lois.
Trying to regain her composure, Lois wracked her brain for something witty to say. Suddenly inspired, she said, "I understand you taught Clark ballroom dancing."
The Princess laughed. "Oh, my. That was years ago. We met at my country's embassy in London. I think it was a reception for the news media and journalism students. Clark was so kind. He taught me all of the latest American dances."
It was Lois' turn to be impressed. Clark was full of surprises.
Lois thought desperately to come up with an angle on all this. "The people I've talked to here are all surprised that a royal princess would be out doing what you're doing, meeting the media, arranging for the exhibit, inspecting the burial grounds— in other words, getting your hands dirty and, ah, not even chipping your nails."
The Princess smiled. "Many responsibilities come with the title, Ms. Lane—"
"Oh, do call me Lois."
"All right, Lois, and please call me Bunny. That was what my nanny called me and I've always loved it."
"Ah, Bunny, okay…" She restrained herself from asking if Kansas Clark had taught her the Bunny Hop…
"And also, my country is not a wealthy one, so I must do much of the work myself. That's why I was thrilled to see Clark," she touched his hand. He smiled and Lois was relieved to see it was no more than one of his warm, friendly, heart wrenching little smiles that he had no clue he was capable of breaking hearts with. Bunny continued, a serious note in her voice now. "I'm afraid we're undergoing a troubling revolution in my home land of Western Bougainvilla, and it all leads back to the golden icon that was found in the burial grounds in southern Metropolis."
"Icon? Icon? What icon?"
"Lois?" Clark said, concerned, obviously, that she was going to lose control. She hated it when he thought he had to rescue her, even when sometimes he did have to. "Remember when we snuck into the warehouse to get a look at the material recovered from the site so we could write about it?"
"Yes, yes, Jimmy picked the lock and then got lost among the packing cases, but we found him again, darn it…"
"Well, be that as it may, you were drawn to a big crate and insisted I break into it and there we found the giant golden icon that looked exactly like—"
"No, that was the Chinese burial ground case and the Prankster planted that one there to get your goat."
"Oh, right, ugh—No, I remember now, the Western Bougainvilla icon looked exactly like
uh, um, it looked like…uh…" Lois shifted uncomfortably.
"A phallic symbol," Bunny finished gracefully.
"Yes! That's what it looked like!" Lois said, a little too loudly.
Lois remembered back to when she and Clark had found the icon. They had both been silent for a moment, their brains trying to figure out what else the icon could be. They had looked at each other before breaking into hysterical laughter, laughter that had almost brought security into the warehouse. Luckily, the elderly security guard must have thought he was hearing things after all, because they were not discovered. The whole way back to the Planet they had spent laughing and smirking, poor Jimmy trying to figure out why they had seemingly lost their minds. Lois recalled the memory with fondness; it seemed she and Clark hardly ever got to laugh like that. The thought suddenly occurred to her that maybe she should do something about that when a voice rang through the reception room.
"Okay, everyone, hold it right where you are!" Men dressed from head to toe in black with semi-automatic weapons were in every corner of the room. One of the men, presumably the leader, came forward and grabbed Bunny, pointing his gun at Clark to make sure there were no heroics. "The Princess is coming with me," he said. "We'll be in touch."
In an instant, the men, and the Princess, were gone.
"Um, Lois, I'll go call the police," Clark said, trying to move away.
Lois grabbed his arm. "No way! Those goons could be right outside, waiting for an excuse to shoot someone!" The sounds of approaching police sirens penetrated the air. "See? Someone already called the police. You're not going anywhere, because I'm sick of you always disappearing during a crisis." Though she would never admit it, she worried about him when she didn't know where he was.
Within minutes the room was filled with policemen asking questions. Clark fidgeted nervously, but Lois, still holding tightly to his arm, appeared not to notice. Finally, when he checked his watch for the fifth time in as many minutes, she gave up trying.
"For heaven's sake, Clark, what is your problem? I've never seen you quite like this before. Relax, it's going to be a few minutes before they get to us."
"Relax?" Clark gave Lois an incredulous look. "Lois, I've got to get out of here and start looking for Bunny. I'll never be able to forgive myself if they hurt her. I should have done something to keep whoever that was from taking her…"
Lois rolled her eyes. "Clark, calm down. You're starting to talk like you're Superman again. What could you have done? The men had guns! And if you *had* tried anything I'm sure they would have shot you and whoever else was in their line of sight."
Clark gave Lois a weak grin. "You're right, Lois. That would have been pretty insensitive of me. Risking your dress and all…"
Lois interrupted him. "Look. The chief of police must be done talking with the King. Let's go and see if the King has any ideas about who could have done this, or what it's all about."
Clark grudgingly gave in to Lois' suggestion. He already had a pretty good idea of what was going on, and knew they were wasting time. If the Princess was not rescued soon, a civil war could break out in her country.
"Mr. Kent, thank goodness you are here. These people do not understand how critical this situation is. And, James—when he finds out he will be devastated." The King appeared to be in shock.
"James?" Lois asked her partner, obviously confused.
"Her fiance, Lois. He is the son of their country's ambassador to England. He introduced me to the Princess. Their marriage is very important to their country. His majesty is the 38th Oba of the Benin dynasty. There is as yet no male heir to the *throne* you might say, and their marriage will unite two kingdoms. The disappearance of much of their country's artifacts and artwork has been blamed on their rulers' lack of vigilance—and could trigger another battle for power. The culture is very complicated, and these kidnappers—who I suspect are rebels from their country—are well aware of that, and will stop at nothing to help the opposing faction gain control." He looked worried.
"Sir," Clark said, turning to the King and addressing him with the utmost respect and concern in his voice. "We'll do what we can to help. The gold icon surely is the reason for the kidnapping. I wouldn't be surprised if that's what they'll demand as ransom. If you will please excuse us, we need to contact someone who might be able to help bring this situation to an end." The King nodded his assent, shook Clark's hand, and gave him such a look it bewildered Lois. She had so much to learn about her partner. It positively amazed her that he had forged such a friendship.
"Clark, how do you know all this? How—"
"Lois, it's a long story. Just suffice it to say that I made an effort to learn everything I could about different cultures during my travels after college. In a nutshell, whichever kingdom has possession of the icon has great control over the people in their country. The icon disappeared many years ago, but this knowledge was never made public. Its discovery here was a great shock to the Oba's people. Which is why their kingdom's political situation is so fragile. Let's get out of here so I can contact Superman. He's the only one who can avert a potential tragedy." Clark helped Lois with her coat, and led her through the door to the main entrance of the building. She suddenly stopped and…
turned on Clark. "How do you always know how to contact Superman?"
"Ah… He sometimes comes over to wash a suit out in my sink for old time's sake? Look, does it really matter?"
"No, probably not, but if you run out of hot water, tell him he can find some at *my* place."
"Yeah, I'll *bet* it's hot…"
"I said 'That'd be quite a shot,' Jimmy could take pictures. But that's not important now. Listen, Lois, I think it's too late to call Superman, the kidnappers have probably taken Bunny to ground already and are getting ready to send their ransom note."
"You think they're going to demand the icon? Those people have got to have a lot of courage—or nerve—to think they can wave *that* thing in front of some parade of revolutionaries…"
"I wouldn't have put it that way… but I think we should inspect the icon more closely, maybe it has clues we missed the first time…"
They obtained permission from the King and within an hour were in a vault in the warehouse, in the presence of the uniquely shaped, 6-foot-tall golden icon. Lois was struggling to keep a straight face. "Go ahead, Clark…investigate."
"I'm really tempted to say this is more up your alley…"
"And I'm really tempted to brain you with my purse if you do."
"Okay…" Clark wiped his hands on his trousers and began to inspect the icon closely though without touching it. Lois was biting her lip and tears brimmed in her eyes. She noticed Clark, his back to her, taking off his glasses for a moment, rubbing his eyes, probably squinting at the golden icon, then putting his glasses back on. When he turned to look at her, she had a serene, professional look on her face. He said, "Come look at this, it's an almost invisible crack running up from the… well, here, to, ah, up there. Do you have a nail file?"
"No, but I have screw driver on my Swiss Army knife."
"That will have to do, I guess." Clark put it to good use and in moment, the crack turned into an actual door, which he opened gently. He stood back and gasped, "Oh my gosh…"
"Such language, Clark!" She pushed him aside. "What… Oh, my gosh! This looks like a job for… Perry."
"He's the only one who'll know how to interpret this…"
"What did you say?" Perry asked incredulously.
"When Clark opened the door, we saw that there was a statue inside that looked exactly like…Elvis." Lois said.
"What do you think it means, Chief?" Clark asked.
Perry paced back and forth across the room, his head down and one hand up in the air, indicating he was thinking out loud.
"Many people have speculated that Elvis is kind of like an Jungian archetype. That Elvis is a universal symbol that is contained in everyone's subconscious, much like a cross— representations of which are found in many disparate cultures. Why, did I ever tell you my theory on Superman's cape?"
"So you're saying that Elvis is a part of their culture?" Lois asked, hoping to divert Perry from one of his stories.
"Wouldn't be the craziest thing I ever heard," Perry said.
"Well, it's the craziest thing I've ever heard!" Lois countered. "I think it's the Prankster, up to his stupid tricks again!"
"Well, I think we're getting distracted from the real issue here. We need to find the Princess," Clark interjected.
Jimmy ran into the office. "Telephone, CK!"
Clark ran to his desk, and Lois followed. Lois tried to eavesdrop while she poured herself a cup of coffee, but it was just too hard to follow Clark's end of the conversation. Soon Clark was finished with his call, but before she could ask about it, he was already turning towards her.
"That was the King. He was very upset. He's just received a demand for the icon in exchange for the Princess."
Lois noticed how sweet Clark looked when he was worried, then quickly chided herself for thinking such a thing, especially at a time like this.
"So you were right. The kidnappers do want the icon," she said.
"Or what's inside."
On the short trip over to the Lexor hotel, where the King was staying in the presidential suite, Lois and Clark tried to figure out what the kidnappers' odd demands could mean.
"Are you *sure* that they told the King to bring the…artifact to Kirby Park and leave it there?" Lois asked once more.
"That's what he said, Lois," Clark repeated. "The part about wanting LNN satellite coverage of the whole event is understandable, it will be a big coup for the rebels if they're able to get international media coverage."
"Okay, I can see that," said Lois. "If the tribespeople see such blatant disrespect for the icon, a civil war will be much more likely to start. But how will the rebels retrieve the icon? And how are they going to return the Princess?"
"All they told the King was..
bring *it* to the park with the contents intact. Hmm, you know, I think I'm getting an idea—" Clark started to smile, then bit his lip to keep from laughing out loud.
"What? What—tell me!" Lois had her "You'd better tell me what's going on, Kent, or else" look on her face.
"I'm sorry, Lois. I just had the weirdest thought. I certainly can't believe that icon contains a statue of Elvis. I wonder if someone is conning us. I want to take another look at that icon before it's moved. The King may not go for my idea, but it's worth a try." Clark refused to say anything more.
They drove the rest of the way in silence. Clark met with the King alone, leaving Lois to fend for herself in the reception area of the suite.
While she impatiently waited for the meeting to end, Lois inspected the Nigerian artwork displayed in the room. While the brass and terra-cotta objects and photographs of some important pieces were impressive, nothing really caught her eye until she saw *it*—a miniature copy of the six-foot icon. Checking to make sure the King's servants were otherwise occupied, she gingerly picked *it* up. Half expecting to see a "Made in Metropolis" sticker on the bottom of the figure, she nearly dropped it when she saw…
a tiny message scratched into the gold. She squinted at it but couldn't make it out. It was not only very small, but it wasn't in English. She wished Clark would hurry up. She could use his glasses to magnify the message and then he'd probably claim to know how to read Swahili or whatever this was, too. Why she'd slept through her college course in modern African languages she'd never know…
She nearly jumped out of her skin and turned to see a tall, distinguished-looking black man standing behind her. "Who are you?"
"Madam, I believe I have the right to ask that question as you are the person clutching one of my people's sacred icons in a manner most unbecoming of a beautiful woman…"
"Oh, this old thing?" She caught herself and put the icon back in its place carefully. She straightened up to her full height and did what she hoped was a professional recovery. "I'm Lois Lane, reporter for the Daily Planet, and I'm here investigating the kidnapping of the Princess."
"Ah, yes, Ms. Lane, I've heard of you. I am the Princess' fiance, James."
"Oh." Lois was glad she hadn't offered her hand for him to shake because he might have expected a curtsy. Then again, this was *America* and women didn't have to stoop to doing that kind of thing. "Well, James—may I call you James?—you must be really broken up about Bunny being kidnapped…"
"Yes," he said dryly, his mind obviously beginning to wander.
"Lois?" It was Clark, and was Lois glad to see him. This James guy gave her the creeps. "Oh, hi, James," Clark said as he approached. They shook hands. Lois saw that Clark had on his mild-mannered guise, and she thought he wasn't particularly pleased to see James, either, even though they had been friends once. "So you've met Lois."
"Yes, she's enchanting, isn't she?"
"Yes, often she is."
"Hey, fellows, yoo-hoo! I'm right here! Clark, did you find out anything?"
"Yes, the King told me something I never expected to hear."
"What?" both Lois and James said at once.
To Lois' eyes, Clark began to look a bit uncomfortable. He said, "Well, the King told me
uh…" Clark looked over at James, who was staring at him intently. "The King told me that…he really likes it here in Metropolis."
Lois stared at him for a moment, thinking maybe he'd had a little too much wine. Then she realized that Clark didn't want to say anything in front of James.
James snickered, obviously unimpressed by Clark's statement. "Yes, I suppose Metropolis would be considered a nice change of pace from our homeland. Well, I suppose I should be going. I have other matters to attend to." He nodded his head towards each of them, and strode off.
"Charming…" Lois muttered sarcastically. "So what did the King tell you?"
"Well, he said that he was hoping to step down soon."
"Huh? Whoever heard of a King stepping down?"
"Well, according to him, he's not in the best of health, and he wants to get his country's affairs in order before he dies. He figures the best way to do that would be to step down and let his successor take over while he's still around to be an advisor. He was hoping this marriage would produce a male heir to the throne, and Bunny could take over the country until the child was old enough to take over. James was thought to be a suitable husband for Bunny because he was more interested in diplomacy than power. But he's changed recently, perhaps because he realizes what kind of power he *could* have."
"So was this all *on* the record, or off?" asked Lois, grabbing her notebook.
"*Off*, of course! Lois, we're talking about a close friend here."
"That's why *I* should be writing the story—you're just too close," Lois said, trying to make it sound like the most reasonable thing in the world.
"Uh-uh. Nice try, though." It was getting harder and harder to pull anything on Clark.
"So, do you think this has anything to do with the Princess' kidnapping?" Lois asked.
"Well, it certainly is another possibility, one I definitely think we should explore."
"Clark, I think we should do a *who* and a *what*. Or maybe a *who* and a *how*. Who might know about the King's decision, and how could they best use that information, that kind of thing." Lois pulled out her pad and pencil, and started writing.
"Um, Lois…I think you should go back to the Planet to start working on it from that angle. You can check international data banks for information on both James and the rebels, see if there are any commonalities, etc." Clark shifted restlessly, waiting to see if Lois would buy into his idea.
Surprisingly enough, she turned towards the door at once, hardly looking up from what she was writing. "You're right Clark, I'll need my computer to look for more information. If Jimmy's on it again I'll have to…"
"Lois," Clark interrupted her. "You'll have to open the door if you want to get out of the room…"
Lois looked up, startled. Sure enough, she had almost run into the closed door. "By the way, Clark, what are *you* going to be doing while I'm writing *our* story?"
Clark, who had already started loosening his tie, stopped abruptly as Lois turned to face him. "I…uh…was…going to talk to the King again, see if he'd thought of anything else, and try to check out the icon again, remember? I'll call you as soon as I learn anything new."
"Sure, Clark, and have fun with Elvis." Lois turned back towards the door and reached for the handle. "Oh, before James came in and distracted me I noticed there's an inscription on the bottom of that miniature of the icon over there. I have complete confidence in your ability to decipher whatever ancient African language it's written in, so let me know what it says."
With that Lois left the hotel suite. Checking with his x-ray vision to make sure no one was around, in a blur of blue Clark quickly changed into Superman. Searching the display area, Clark found to his dismay the miniature icon was missing. Had Lois—no, she wouldn't have taken it. Resorting to petty theft was not beneath his partner if it meant getting a story. But she was smart enough not to create an international incident—at least he hoped she was.
Suddenly, Clark heard the sound of a scuffle. It came from the direction of the King's bedroom. Bursting through the door, Clark found James bending over the still form of the King.
"Who in the name of the Great Oba are you?" James looked stunned.
"You might have heard of me. I'm called Superman." Clark quickly scanned the King's body—he was alive, but barely.
"You…you…" James was clearly in shock, but whether it was from being discovered in this compromising position, or from coming face to face with the superhero, Clark couldn't say.
"If we don't get him to a hospital, our countries could be looking at a diplomatic crisis." Clark glared at James, deciding to give him the benefit of the doubt about his involvement in a possible overthrow of the Oba's government. James backed away, giving Clark room to pick up the King. Kicking open a glass door that lead to a balcony, Clark quickly exited the room before James could call the King's bodyguards, and leaped high into the air before heading toward Metropolis General Hospital.
A grumbling Lois pulled up to her desk, turned on her computer and wrote up the outline of a story, enough, she hoped, to appease Perry
—who she suddenly realized had glided up behind her. "Oh, Chief!"
"Anything more on that Elvis icon?"
"Ah, no… we're still looking into it. Clark's checking with his contact in the embassy… I think…"
"Oh, did he disappear on you again? Well, don't worry about him, worry about the King. Someone tried to kill him, but Superman rushed in and got him to the hospital in time. It was touch and go in the emergency room, what with all the forms he had to fill out first. I guess he used superspeed…"
"Is the King going to be all right?"
"Clark called the story in and said the King is alive and under 24-hour guard. The embassy staff is holding that James fellow, apparently Superman found him with the King. Clark said Superman told him that James had no knife though…"
"A frame-up…?" Lois whispered thoughtfully.
"Maybe. And here's another bizarre twist. A tribe of Indians out on the Arizona-New Mexico border is claiming the Elvis icon is really theirs!"
"Huh? Ah… Does this mean Clark and I don't have to go to Africa?"
"Umm, don't pack your elephant gun yet. No, I guess it's a camera these days. Anyhow, the way I see it, the tribes involved in Africa and here in the US have a lot in common, politically and socially, and maybe Elvis is drawing them together. It's poetic somehow…"
"Yeah, that's what I would have said…" Lois tried to smile. This was getting confusing, but that always seemed to mean she (and Clark) were on to something big. She sat back. "I wonder what other small groups of people could be involved?"
As though in answer to her question, she heard someone scream and both she and Perry turned to see that, jumping out of the elevator, was
Elvis! Well, an Elvis impersonator, anyway. With a large entourage. Poor Diane had been waiting for the elevator when the doors opened and he jumped towards her.
"Great shades of…uh…" Perry commented, before walking towards the elevator. "May I help you folks?"
Elvis spoke. "Yes, we've heard that there was a statue found by a couple of your reporters that bears a striking resemblance to the King. We're interested in seeing it."
"And just who would you be?"
"We're the KING foundation, King-Is-Not-Gone. We investigate Elvis sightings and other Elvis-related phenomena."
"Well, I'm afraid there's nothing for you here."
Elvis was oblivious to Perry's statement. "Where is this statue now?"
"I'm afraid we're not at liberty to discuss it. Now, I'm going to have to ask you to leave. I have a paper to put out. Do I have to call security?"
The KING party conferred, and reluctantly turned to the elevator. The elevator doors opened, and Clark entered the newsroom as the party pushed past him onto the elevator. Clark stared open-mouthed at them, as the doors closed.
"What was that all about?" he asked Perry and Lois as he walked down the stairs to the newsroom.
"Oh, you know, as soon as Elvis is mentioned, the kooks come out of the woodwork—uh, sorry, chief, I didn't mean that exactly the way it sounded—"
"Well, they *were* pretty kooky," Perry said, surprising both Lois and Clark.
"So, Clark, did you find out anything?"
"Yes, I did, as a matter of fact. It turns out that
James is probably not involved in the attempted murder of the King. I was able to speak with him at the embassy, and he was pretty shaken up by the whole ordeal. He may be ambitious and in sympathy with the rebels, but he wouldn't kill to get the throne. He cares for Bunny, I'm sure of it."
Clark had a concerned look on his face, as if he had something more to say.
"Clark—uh, are you sure? Should we really be giving James the benefit of the doubt? The way he acted when I looked at that miniature icon—something about his attitude really rubbed me the wrong way." Lois hesitated to say any more.
"Lois, while I may not be as friendly with James as I used to be, Bunny is a smart woman. She wouldn't marry James *just* to save her government. She'd have to love the man, too."
"Oh, and how do you know this?" Lois' curiosity was getting the better of her. She looked at Clark with an intensity he'd never noticed before.
"Yes, Clark—if there's a story behind this, don't you think the Planet should report it, and not our competition?" Perry's interruption brought the two reporters back to earth.
"Uh, sure Chief. But we have to take another look at that icon—the big one, that is. The miniature one disappeared—"
"What? How, Clark? It was right there when I left the suite—don't tell me James took it? Oh, geeze—" Lois kicked her garbage can, sending it half way across the newsroom floor. "Ow, why do I do that?" She hopped on one foot, barely making it to her desk. She rubbed her foot, trying to ease the pain, at the same time giving Clark a dirty look, as if the disappearance of their one piece of evidence was all his fault, as well as the stabbing pain in her big toe.
Well, Clark thought, at least now I know Lois didn't "borrow" the miniature for their story.
"Get that look off your face, Clark Kent! Geesh! You'd think I borrowed the miniature icon for some *other* reason! Well, I, for one, am tired of looking at icons of 'sacred' body parts. Men! The Elvis-dressed-in-a-lion-skin icon was the only real clue we had—"
"Mountain lion, if Tewa Indians are right," Perry amended.
"Eskimos, too, Chief!" Jimmy exclaimed as he ran up. "Now they've faxed in a claim based on the white-painted fur like material around that icon's neck! Polar bear, get it?"
"Yeah, yeah. Next someone's going to say the sticks he was holding were chopsticks…"
"Ah, so!" said the small Asian who stepped into the newsroom from the elevator.
"Security!" Perry roared. "Get that man out of here! Put him in the conference room, I'll take care of him later."
"We're forgetting that Bunny was kidnapped…" Clark said sadly. "Maybe we should be looking for her—*Maybe* they took her back to Africa! I could go there—"
"Clark, Mr. Stern cut the travel budget again," Perry reminded him, "So unless you plan to ask Superman to give you a lift…"
"Everyone will have to stay in this country. No, I want you two —and Jimmy, yes, boy, stop jumping up and down and waving—I want you all to take the next flight out to
Hawaii for a well-deserved vacation."
They all looked at Perry as if he had lost his mind.
"Actually, we'll all go." Perry turned to face the rest of the newsroom and yelled, "Good news, everyone, we're all going to Hawaii, courtesy of the Daily Planet. No one's getting any work done anyway…"
"Okay, Chief, we got it. C'mon, Lois, let's go dig up some more leads," Clark touched Lois' arm. The duo walked out to Lois' car and hopped in.
"Any ideas?" Lois asked.
"No," Clark said sadly, shaking his head.
"You are really worried about Bunny, aren't you?"
"If something's happened to her, I'll never forgive myself."
Lois said, "Clark, you're not Superman," then noticed the sudden change in his expression. Of course, Clark idolizes the man, she thought. "And even if you were, you couldn't be everywhere at once. This isn't your fault."
"I know, I'm just…so…frustrated."
"Don't worry, we'll find her," she said, touching his hand lightly. He looked down at it, and Lois, suddenly feeling uncomfortable, pulled it away. She continued, "The kidnappers said they wanted to make the exchange noon tomorrow in Kirby Park. So I guess we have until then to figure out who did this."
"Well, let's narrow down the leads. I doubt it's the Indians, or the Eskimos, or the Elvis worshippers, because they didn't come out of the woodwork until the report of the Elvis-like statue and all its accoutrements."
"Agreed. I still think it's got something to do with the politics of Nigeria, otherwise the King probably wouldn't have been stabbed. Hmm… does the King have any relatives who may be interested in controlling the country?" Lois wondered.
"You know, now that you mention it, I think I remember Bunny talking about an older brother who fell into his father's disfavor. Apparently Bunny's father and brother had had quite the falling out, and her brother hadn't been seen in years—when we spoke of it."
"Bunny has an older brother? Hmm…ow!" Lois had just pressed her foot on the break pedal before shifting gears to back out of her parking space, when a stab of pain shot through her leg.
"Lois, what's the matter?"
"Stupid—that garbage can will be the death of me yet. Darn toe feels like I really bruised it—it hurts." Tears started to gather in the corners of her eyes. She turned off the ignition. She gingerly removed her shoe and started rubbing the tender digit.
"Here, I'll drive." Clark exited the vehicle, and waited for Lois to slide over onto the passenger side. After taking his place in the driver's seat, he motioned for Lois to turn toward him. Reaching for her foot, he gently lifted it onto his lap. Lois was pleasantly surprised. Not saying a word, he methodically massaged her foot, taking care not to hurt her toe any further, but checking it quickly with his x-ray vision to see if there were any broken bones.
"Hmm, it feels okay and you can wiggle it, right? I don't think there's anything broken, but I'll bet you'll have a lovely bruise. No high heels for you, young lady!" His eyes held hers captive as he continued to massage her foot. Lois had never experienced anything so sensuous—
"Uh, that feels great, Clark. But, I think we're going nowhere fast—" She gulped, and blushed as she tried to avoid his eyes.
"Oh, sorry, I didn't realize—" Clark was embarrassed. He had gotten carried away.
"Don't apologize—that felt wonderful—but, we do have a story to investigate, and we have to find out what happened to Bunny." Lois looked into his eyes. There was a spark—of what she couldn't say, but she felt it. He grinned at her, and reluctantly set her foot gently on the floor. Hmm, she thought, I wonder if everything he does feels so good?
"If your foot doesn't feel better soon, I'll try accupressure."
"You've heard of it, I learned some in China. The way I figure it, you find a trigger point and pressure it until it hurts more than, say, your sprained toe and the trigger pain distracts you and the toe gets better because it can't compete."
"…really," so much for that dreamy touch.
"Well, that's sort of a western medicine way of looking at it."
"I'll take your word for it." She held up her foot and wiggled her toes, managing not to grimace. "See, better already. Just thinking of accupressure must have done it."
"Hey, you see?" and Clark smiled like he was sure he'd made a true contribution to her well-being.
Suddenly, a great flash of light filled the cab of Lois' Jeep. Lois yelped and nearly kicked Clark's glasses off, reinjuring her toe in the process but darned if she'd say anything. Particularly as Clark had jumped up and covered her body protectively with his own.
"Clark, get off me!"
"Hey, you two, having fun?"
"I thought it was a bomb but it's only Jimmy…" Clark said as he straightened and adjusted his tie. "Same thing, I guess…"
"Did I surprise you? I was just testing his new flash. The chief said I should go along with you and get pictures." He pulled open the right back door. "Where are we going? Will it be near someplace we can get something to eat? I'm starving…"
"You always are…" Lois observed dryly. Then another light flashed, internally. "There's a cafe across from the embassy, isn't there?"
"Stake out time," Clark agreed and he got the jeep started.
"Steak!" Jimmy drooled. "Great!"
Clark steered the Jeep into a tiny parking space across the street from the embassy.
"Okay, I'm taking orders," Jimmy called from the back seat.
"Get me a huge cheeseburger and a large fries. And a Coke."
Lois rolled her eyes at Clark's order. That man could eat anything. "Jimmy, get me some kind of salad, okay? And a large iced tea."
"Back in a jiff," Jimmy called as he opened the door, jumped out, and ran to the cafe.
"Why are we here again?" Lois asked.
"I don't know—it was your idea!"
"Oh yeah. We're looking for anything suspicious."
They were both lost in their own thoughts for several minutes. Sometimes Lois felt a little uncomfortable with Clark in the forced intimacy of the car. After all, they had to sit so close to one another, with barely inches between her leg and his well-muscled thigh— Lois managed to quash that thought before it went any farther.
"How's that foot doing?" Clark asked, finally breaking the silence.
"Oh, much better. You have talented fingers," she said, earnestly.
Looking into each other's eyes, they started to lean forward ever so slightly when the back door opened and Jimmy crawled in. They both pulled back with a guilty start.
"Here you go!" Jimmy passed the food around.
As Clark took his dinner, he glanced down the darkened street. "Oh my—!" he cried.
"What is it, CK?" Jimmy asked, grabbing for his camera.
Lois peered in the direction he was. "What? I don't see anything…"
Clark looked a little surprised. "Oh, I have a strong prescription…Anyway, those Elvis worshippers are heading this way!"
"You think they're going to try to talk to someone at the embassy?" Lois wondered.
"Oh, this could be fun to watch!" Lois said excitedly.
"That's for sure," Clark agreed.
"James won't know what hit him." He continued. "Maybe while he's distracted we can look for information about Bunny's brother and the rebels. We just need a way to get in while he's distracted."
The three friends sat in silence for a few minutes, watching the K-I-N-G group drawing nearer to the embassy and trying to figure out a way to get in to look around.
Clark and Lois spoke almost simultaneously.
"I'll bet I can find a housekeeping uniform…"
"If I can get hold of a food service cart…"
All three of them laughed. "Jimmy," said Lois, "you mix in with the Elvis impersonators. Try to keep them going so James is distracted for as long as possible while we look for more information. Clark and I will go now and look for some uniforms to change into before the Elvis group reaches the embassy. When James *finally* manages to get rid of them," Lois smiled a little wickedly, "meet us back here."
Lois and Clark crossed the street, snuck in a back entrance, and quickly found a service hallway. Halfway down was a closet marked "supplies." Lois opened the door and pulled Clark in after her. The uppermost shelves were filled with white and pastel uniforms clearly marked "kitchen" and "housekeeping."
As they were reaching for the uniforms, Clark's superhearing picked up the sound footsteps nearing the closet, and then stopping in front of the door. He quickly stepped in between Lois' outstretched arms, and with one arm around her waist and one hand behind her neck, pulled her in towards him. Lois barely had time to gasp in shock before he lowered his mouth to hers.
At first she struggled in his embrace, wondering if he'd lost his mind. But as the kiss deepened, she abandoned herself to the moment, and the sensation of his warm, soft lips against hers. She felt his hand caressing her back, his arms pulling her closer and closer to his taut, muscular chest. Her heart was racing, and she could hardly breathe. She felt an unfamiliar warmth spreading throughout her body—and she found herself grasping the back of his neck, not wanting to let go of him until she had explored every inch of his mouth—
Though Clark could hear the person on the other side of the door fumbling with something, he found himself so distracted by Lois, he threw caution to the wind, and let himself indulge in the passion that was quickly building. The last time something like this had happened, they nearly got caught setting up for a stakeout in the Lexor Hotel. If not for his quick thinking, their cover would have been blown. As an added bonus, it had netted him a few moments of bliss. That kiss had been short and exquisitely passionate. But nothing significant had come of that event, other than a new closeness, a sharper awareness of each other's presence. This time, he had started something he wanted to continue, and he found her responding kiss for kiss, caress for caress—
It was the sound of a *click* that broke the spell. As he reluctantly pulled away from her, he quickly lowered his glasses and peered through the door. He could see one of the embassy housekeepers walking down the hall, twirling a set of keys in her hand. He hoped that he was wrong in thinking they were locked in.
"Uh, what is it—what?" Lois asked, feeling slightly out of breath and a little dizzy from the experience.
"I, uh, I'm not sure, but we may be locked inside this closet, Lois." He gave her a lop-sided grin, which made him look so endearing—
"Locked in? Clark Kent, I could just kill you for that!" Her whisper changed from surprise to anger in two seconds flat. "How could you let that happen? Now what are we supposed to do?"
"I'm sorry, Lois, I thought I heard someone in the hall, but I figured if it could work once, maybe our diversion could work again—just in case we were caught in here."
"A diversion?" So, that's all it was? Lois didn't know if it was anger or disappointment she felt.
"Now before you erupt like Mount St. Helen's, let me check out the lock." He turned his back to her, wincing at the thought of her fuming and fussing, when he would have given anything to continue their kiss. Turning the knob slowly, he found the door opened easily. Thank God!
"Quick, let's put some uniforms on. I don't know if we'll be able to fool anyone, but we can't just wander the embassy halls in our street clothes." Clark quickly started looking through the pile of uniforms on the shelves. He handed Lois several pink smocks that were embroidered with the word "Housekeeping," and found some white jackets with "Kitchen" printed on the breast pocket.
"These smocks are way too big, but you'll look great in pink, Clark."
"And ruffles, too. Men can look quite sexy in ruffled shirts…"
He perked up. "Oh?"
I've got him going, she thought. "Yes! Remember Mel Gibson in Maverick and those great clothes he wore?" She immediately thought of and rattle off the names of a dozen sexy ruffled men, including Adrian Paul, Johnny Depp, Frank Sinatra… "Ummm!"
"When he's singing, he can wear anything! I bet even *Superman* would look good in a shirt with ruffles!"
"Well, maybe he wouldn't stand still long enough to get one on him. But you, Clark, *you* would look… stunning…!" and she batted her eyes and hoped he would recall his uncalled for romantic moves of only minutes before.
He softened and reconsidered the blouse she had thrust into his hands. "Well, if you think so," and he held the blouse up before himself, measuring the shoulder-to-shoulder width. His were far broader. He sighed. "Lois…! Just *who* do you think you're fooling here? Besides, this pink clashes terribly with my shoes… No, I'll go as kitchen staff. Maybe I can whip up a nice omelette while I'm at it."
"You should have eaten that hamburger before we came in here. Oh, look, some of Bunny's clothing, I'll bet!" She rushed to the other side of the large closet and pulled a fashionable African wrap-around off a hanger. "It's been cleaned and just needs some ironing to touch it up, but no one will notice. Turn around, Clark Kent…"
"All right, all right… Actually, I think everyone's going to notice you in those bright colors…"
"Not as much as they'd notice a white maid, wearing make up like I have on, sneaking around the embassy's hotspots. I can think up a better cover this way and be more likely to get into places where information is stored—more likely than a roving chef. Besides… there, it fits… do you have something against red, yellow, and blue?"
He turned and smiled when he saw her. "Not on you I don't." Then his smiled faded. "You're right about being able to go more places than me though. You better be careful. Remember, the would-be assassin and the icon thieves may be right in this very building, and I won't be able to come to your rescue if I'm up to my elbows in bread dough."
"You rescue me, Clark? Ha! You just get to the kitchen and see if you can pick up any gossip there."
"I'll look for file cabinets and secret rooms on the way, too."
"You do that," and she patted his chest, crept up to the door, and opened it carefully, peeking out to see
the empty hallway. Lois crept out of the closet. Clark closed the door behind her.
She walked quietly down the corridor, glancing at every door to see if any looked interesting. Most of the rooms appeared to be staff quarters.
Finally, she came to the staff elevator. Lois pushed the button and waited impatiently. She considered taking the stairs but figured she would be less suspicious if she met someone on the elevator. Finally the elevator arrived, and she stepped in. She glanced at the rows of buttons, trying to decide which floor would be most likely to have something interesting. She finally decided on the top floor.
Lois hid in the corner of the elevator as the doors opened at the top floor. Her heart racing, she peered through the doors to see that the coast was clear. She stepped out into what was apparently a recess meant to hide the staff elevator. She poked her head around the corner and saw another hallway with many closed doors. None of the doors seemed to give any indication of what was inside.
She was almost to the end of the hall when she heard the ding of the main elevator, meaning someone was arriving. Lois grabbed for the first doorknob she could reach, and thanked her lucky stars when she realized she could turn it. She opened the door and dashed inside what appeared to be a very opulently decorated office. Luckily, there was a small closet in the corner of the room, and she ran to it, stepped inside and closed the door most of the way.
Two men entered the office just as Lois was closing her closet door. Lois prayed that these men would give her the answers they were looking for, but she wished Clark were there with her. Somehow she always felt safer with him around.
"I cannot believe your man bungled the assassination of the King!" one of the men said.
Paydirt! thought Lois, as she struggled to see their faces.
The man continued. "You do realize that this severely compromises our time schedule, as well as lessens our bargaining power with the rebels, don't you? Those superstitious ignoramuses think that our failed attempt is some kind of bad omen, and it's going to take lots of cash to persuade them differently."
"Maybe this will help change their minds," said a different, deeper voice. "I managed to grab it while we were in the King's suite, I thought it might come in handy…"
Lois slowly turned the handle on the inside of the closet door, then started easing the door open. Hearing this information was helpful, but without some idea of who was behind it all they still had no idea of who to protect the King from, or where to look for Bunny.
"Quick thinking! This will certainly smooth things over with the rebels. Can you believe that they think this is some kind of … talisman?"
As Lois' eyes focused through the small opening in the doorway, she saw the men standing with their backs towards her, holding the miniature golden icon. *I've got to get that,* she thought. *I'm sure the inscription on the bottom would help us understand what's going on here. And I know the King needs both icons to maintain his control over the country… *
Lois still couldn't see the faces of the men in the room. But, she was pretty sure they weren't countrymen of the King. They were probably mercenaries, or maybe hitmen, hired to do somebody else's dirty work. *Clark Kent—where are you when I need you?* She strained to hear them, and as she leaned closer to the door she felt herself losing her balance. *Oh, no!* Before she could grab onto something to keep from falling, she found herself tumbling head first into the room.
"Uh, hi," she said nonchalantly as she picked herself off the floor.
"Who the he—what are you doing here?" The two men were startled by this sudden intrusion.
*Damn, I wish I'd worn the housekeeping smock.* "I'm sorry, I was in a meeting, and got lost trying to get back to the conference room—the bathrooms are in a very inconvenient part of the building, don't you think? I didn't mean to startle you, I just absolutely panic when I get scared. Hasn't that ever happened to you?" The two men just stared at her and gave each other a disgusted look. "I have to get back to my meeting, but I don't know which way to go. Can you help me? We're in a room with a lot of maps, and there's a wet bar, and…"
"Geeze, lady, don't you ever shut up?" The man who spoke certainly didn't sound like any native African she'd ever met. He sounded very cosmopolitan—with a Hobs Bay accent if she ever heard one.
"Oh, isn't that the neatest statue?" She edged closer to them, trying to formulate a plan as she went along. *Clark, where the heck are you?* "Looks rather, uh, kinky, don't you think?"
The men stood there with their mouths open.
"Uh, look lady, you ain't going anywhere. Just keep your trap shut and sit down." From some hidden place, Mr. Hobs Bay pulled out a rather intimidating looking, semi-automatic gun, and waved it in Lois' face. Lois chose the lesser of two evils and immediately sat down in the nearest chair, keeping one eye on the weapon, and the other on the icon.
*Clark, please hurry up* she silently prayed.
Clark, not surprised that Lois had naturally taken the more dangerous of their assignments, had remained in the closet (literally) and watched her progress from there. When she hid in the office she had stumbled into, he had taken the chance to switch his sights to Jimmy. The photographer was having a ball taking pictures of the Elvis impersonators, who had apparently learned that Jimmy represented the Daily Planet and free publicity.
When Clark checked back on Lois, he was alarmed to see that she had been captured. Thinking superquickly, he grabbed up a chef's hat, rushed out of the closet, zipped down to the basement and the kitchen and, before anyone knew or could see what was going on, he found a large tray and loaded it with likely looking plates and tea cups full of savory food being prepared for others in the building. Seconds later, taking the stairs and not spilling a drop because he was flying, he was up on the floor of the office where Lois was being held captive.
He adjusted the hat so it covered most of his hair. He also slumped a bit to look shorter, affected a limp, squinted one eye, and hoped this would do to disguise him. One of them had to remain undiscovered if possible. But before he knocked on the door, he looked through it to check on the identities of the two men holding Lois.
He was surprised to see
the two men standing in the middle of the room, facing away from Lois. They were deep in discussion, talking about what they were going to do with her.
Lois was leaning toward what looked like a miniature of golden icon, looking like she was about to grab it and make a run for it. Clark decided he had to act fast or she'd get herself killed. He quickly opened the door, remembering to keep his head down.
"Um, excuse. I have food," he said in the most stilted English he could muster, as the men in the room pointed their guns at him.
One of the men growled at him. "You, over there!" He indicated with his gun that he wanted Clark to move next to Lois. Clark started walking slowly in the general direction of Lois, but suddenly tripped, sending the entire tray sailing into one of the gunmen. The coffee pot hit the man in the head, knocking him unconscious. Meanwhile, in the confusion, Lois stood up and karate-chopped the other gunman in the stomach and neck.
"Clark! I thought you'd never get here!"
"You certainly have a way of finding trouble, Lois."
"Never mind that! Look, Clark, here's that miniature icon I told you was in the King's suite…"
"Oh, and I thought you made the whole thing up…"
"Clark! Okay, so you know ten gazillion languages…do you care to tell me what the inscription on the bottom says?"
Clark picked up the icon carefully and turned it over.
"Oh!" he said, surprised. "It says
'He who holds the key shall know the truth'."
"Huh? What does that mean?" Clark stared at the bottom of the little icon, looking a bit puzzled, while Lois paced the floor trying to make some sense of the whole situation.
"Sounds a bit kinky to me," she muttered to herself. In the meantime, Lois kept a wary eye on her two would-be captors. All of a sudden, she stopped in mid-stride, her finger raised and her mouth open, as if she…they suddenly looked at each other and blurted out, "I know what…the icon…check it out." They made a mad dash for the door. But before Lois could turn the knob, Clark grabbed her from behind, clamping his hand over her mouth. She struggled, trying to break free of his hold.
"Shhhh!" he whispered fiercely in her ear. "I heard something." Lois immediately relaxed in his arms, and instinctively pressed her body to his for safety—a reaction they both found rather enjoyable. Clark shook his head and thought *not now, Lois, for heaven's sake,* but he certainly wouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth. There—they both heard it that time. The sound of voices coming closer to the suite. Lois glanced over to the two men who were still lying on the floor, and luckily noticed one of the men regaining consciousness. She elbowed Clark in the ribs and nodded in the direction of the man. Clark spun her around and put his finger to his lips, warning her to be quiet. She nodded, and watched as he approached the semi-conscious man. He was so quiet, it startled her. What? He seemed to be floating—nyah, her imagination was really playing tricks on her. It had to be the stress, the excitement of the moment. Before she could say "Great Shades of Elvis!" Clark had delivered a karate chop to a vulnerable point on the man's body. He once again fell unconscious.
"Kent…how'd you—oh, never mind, come on!" she whispered rather loudly. "Let's get out of here!"
"Go? But those two men out there, what about them? You just want to dance out there and—"
Lois opened the door to the hall and they saw three men, two of them Elvis impersonators. One was of a regular, fit build, the other older, taller and wearing a gray mustache. They both wore white sequined jumpsuits —"late Elvis" as Perry would have said, had he not been standing gagged and bound behind the two—and poorly fitting Elvis wigs.
The Elvis in front whipped out a mean-looking gun. "Ah, Lois! I thought we'd find you mixed up in this. And you, Kent, her little dog tagging along. Nigel, take that icon, our key. Good thing we brought the van! We're all going on a little ride. What's wrong, Lois? Cat got your tongue? I'm sure you'll enjoy our trip to
—ah, but you'll find out soon enough," he said menacingly.
It was Clark who finally spoke. "Lex Luthor. I thought you were in prison."
"Yes. Well. I found the accommodations less than satisfactory, as you can well imagine. So I left," he said simply. "Now, I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you all to be quiet. But just to make sure, Nigel?"
Nigel came forward and tied their hands behind their backs and gagged them. They were taken down the staff elevator to the rear of the embassy, where they were hustled into a waiting van. A miserable-looking Jimmy sat in the corner.
"We have the key. Let us proceed," Lex instructed the driver, who pulled the van out onto a street. Lois tried to follow where they were going, but soon lost her sense of direction, as there were no windows in the back of the van, and Lex and Nigel blocked her view out the front.
"Mmmm…Mmmm." Lois tried to indicate that she wanted to talk.
"My lovely Lois. You know I can never refuse you." Lex indicated to Nigel that he should remove her gag.
"Lex! So you're behind the Princess's kidnapping? And the King's assassination attempt?"
"Tsk, tsk, tsk," Lex admonished. "You should know that I never get involved in boring political power struggles."
Suddenly the van swerved unexpectantly, surprising even Lex.
"Superman!" Lois cried, looking at Clark hopefully, confusing Clark for a moment. Was she talking *to* him, or *about* him?
Lex turned to the driver. "What happened?"
"I'm sorry, Mr. Luthor, a squirrel just ran out in the road and I didn't want to hit it," explained the driver quickly.
"You idiot," exploded Luthor. "You swerved to avoid a stupid squirrel? This operation is too important to risk blowing it over a rodent!"
Nigel laid a restraining hand on Luthor's arm, nodding his head towards the prisoners in the back of the van. Lex took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and was silent for several minutes.
When he appeared calm again, Lois decided it was safe to ask him another question. "Lex, if you're not the one behind the kidnapping and assassination attempt, what are you doing?"
"I told you, my dear, that I'm not interested in political power struggles. But that doesn't mean that when I heard that an African country was practically free for the taking I wasn't interested. If you remember, my finances were a little… compromised, thanks to Sheldon Bender. And my independent geological reports of Western Bougainvilla indicate that there is a strong likelihood of significant mineral deposits in parts of the country."
"But what does all that have to do with those weird icons? And all of these Elvis people everywhere? Do you know anything about that?" Lois figured that while he was giving out information freely, she might as well get as much as she could.
"Of course, my dear," Lex answered smugly. "Do you think I'd commit myself to a venture like this without all the facts? It did take a little digging, but I have many resources. The large icon contains a detailed map of the unexploited natural resources of the country. A treasure map, if you will. But the small icon is necessary to understand the map; it is the key."
The enormity of Lex Luthor's deviousness infuriated Lois, but it also impressed her.
"Lex, you haven't changed a bit," she said as matter-of- factly as she could without losing her temper. "So now what? Where are we going?"
"Tch, tch—you're still as inquisitive as ever. You'll find out soon enough." Lex Luthor flashed an enigmatic smile at Lois, and turned to Nigel.
"Nigel—when we arrive at our destination I want Ms. Lane and Mr. Kent to witness our return to greatness. And then—and then, I don't care what you do with them."
Lois shuddered. So this was how it would end. She glanced over at Clark. She had never seen him looking so grim—and determined. He caught her look, and gave her a sign of encouragement. She smiled back at him. A rock—that's what he was—strong and silent, never wavering in his resolve to support and protect her. No matter how cornball her schemes, or dangerous her plans, he stuck by her. If they got out of this one alive, Princess or no Princess, she was going to let him know how much she appreciated him being there when the going got really rough. She sighed.
"Lois, my dear—having regrets?" Lex smiled condescendingly at her.
"Yeah, Lex. I regret the day I ever thought you were something special." The look of hate she gave him would have stunned any man. But Lex Luthor thrived on the jealousy and contempt of others. He had no use for pity or women who clung to him because they mistakenly believed they could make him fall in love with them. He sneered at her.
"You try my patience, Lois. I can see now a life with you would have been hell—"
Lois tried in vain to lunge at him, but the awkward position she was in, with her hands tied behind her back, only made her lose her balance. As luck would have it, she fell against Clark. She managed to struggle to a sitting position, and found herself leaning against his shoulder.
"Damn," she whispered. "I'm sorry, Clark. Are you okay?" He nodded 'yes' and leaning down a bit, brushed his cheek against her hair. "We'll get out of this—we have to. Just pray Superman finds us in time." She closed her eyes, silently praying for a miracle. The sudden stop of the van jolted her back to the present. Before she could say or do anything more, the door was flung open, and the four of them were unceremoniously dragged from the vehicle. They were at the warehouse where the artifacts from the African burial were being stored.
"Lex, you'll never get away with this. Superman will—"
"Will someone SHUT HER UP!" Luthor was furious. Nigel replaced her gag, and roughly shoved them through the now open warehouse door. There before them, in the center of the floor, was the six-foot golden icon.
In the ruckus, Perry had worked free of his gag. "Great shades of… you kids weren't kidding about that thing, were you?"
"Pictures never did it… justice, Chief," Lois agreed. But, speaking of pictures, she noted that Jimmy, who Lex probably wouldn't recognize (particularly since Jimmy had undergone plastic surgery), was standing back to back with Clark, obviously trying to untie her partner. Their difference in height made it a pitiful attempt, but Lois admired his trying.
"Yes, the map is in here," Lex said as he opened the secret door in the giant unusually-shaped icon. Nigel stood by and kept a smirk from overtaking his stiff British upper lip as he watched his employer point out the markings inside. Neither of them seemed aware of or cared about what Jimmy was doing. Odd, Lois thought.
But Jimmy gave up with a sigh and a sick smile as a darkly dressed henchmen (or perhaps woman, considering the person's build…) pointed a gun in his face and pushed him up front.
"Ah!" Lex smiled. "A volunteer! How did you know I needed someone to see if the key really works? They say that if the wrong hand inserts the key into the so-called lock, the least he'll loose is his hand. There's something about singing soprano for the rest of his short life, which is short because of the hideous boils that cover his body from head to toe and itch like hell."
"Of course, it's also said that the key used by the right person endows that person with spectacular powers… Dream on, Kent." Lex motioned at Jimmy. "Wake him up, and lock the others in the vault until we're ready. Oh, and make sure that piece of kryptonite Nigel brought back is still there in plain view. Clever of you to use it to draw more away from those cretins in Intergang, Nigel."
"I try, sir."
"We don't need Superman interfering in my triumph."
"Remind me to give you a raise."
"When we open a checking account for you, I will."
"Oh, Nigel, you're a card. What would I do without you?"
"I have *no* idea, sir…"
Lois rolled her eyes, tried to grumble about the Kryptonite but was stopped by the gag, turned to look at Clark for his opinion, and saw that
he had also worked free of his gag. "Luthor, you'll never get away with this," he said.
That was one thing about Clark, Lois thought—he certainly was predictable. But that was good. She didn't like surprises.
Lex laughed. "Hmmm…maybe you *should* be the one to try out the key, Mr. Kent." Clark's lack of expression piqued Lex's curiosity. "Why, Mr. Kent, aren't you afraid of singing soprano for the rest of your life?"
"I never was much of a singer," Clark replied coolly, but Lois' eyes became round with horror, as she struggled against her bonds. She tried to move closer to Lex, but one of the thugs stopped her.
"Oh, so there *is* something going on between you two," Lex sneered. "Lois, really! A mild-mannered reporter? Lois, I fear I overestimated you. I had thought you were ambitious. I had thought, well, if you can't have me, you'd probably go after Superman. But Kent? What a disappointment he must be to you! It's really too bad I have to kill you, because it would be delicious watching you realize what you gave up by turning away from me, when I'm back on top again."
He turned to Nigel. "Nigel, I just had a wonderful idea. Why don't we kill Mr. Kent first, so my dear Lois can observe? He obviously means a great deal to her." Lex watched for Lois' reaction. It was obvious he was toying with her.
"Splendid idea, sir."
"Yes, I thought so. Time is running short; isn't he awake yet?" Lex asked, indicating Jimmy with his foot. He sighed. "Youth, today. They just don't have the stamina they did in my day. You two," he motioned at two of the henchmen, "take Perry and *this*," tapping Jimmy with his foot again, "to the vault. Ms. Lane, Mr. Kent, and I have some business to attend to."
The henchmen left with the two men, one dragging Jimmy by the shoulders.
Lex turned to Clark, and handed him the small icon. "Mr. Kent, here is the key. I usually do not put much faith in superstitions, but one must be careful, you see. Hope for the best; plan for the worst, as I always say. Please, be my guest," Lex said, as he indicated that Clark should use the key.
Lois struggled against her bonds, and Clark seemed to hesitate.
"Nigel, show Mr. Kent we mean business."
Nigel held the gun to Lois' head.
Clark glared at Lex. If looks could kill, Luthor would have been toast—literally. But only intense hatred was directed at this earthly symbol of evil personified. Clark stepped closer to the icon. Tipping his head down slightly, he scanned the golden figure, to see if he could detect any hidden booby-traps. To his utter dismay, he discovered the icon was covered with a thin sheet of gold. Underneath was the one thing he hadn't counted on: the icon itself was comprised of more than 50% lead. He could barely make out shadows and shapes behind the lead layer. There was no way he could ascertain what part of the icon was booby-trapped. *Why hadn't I noticed it the first time we saw the icon? Well, probably because we were laughing so hard at the time* he reminded himself.
His mild look of panic sent a lightening bolt of fear through Lois. *No, Clark—don't do it—save yourself.* Her mind screamed with agony.
Clark ignored everyone and everything around him. *Have to concentrate* he thought. *Maybe the glyphs on the icon will show me the way.* He searched the ancient writing to see if it would shed some light on solving his dilemma. He discovered the words to be written in an older form of the language of the Edo. *Piece of cake…* he started to say, but then remembered the atomic warhead he nearly set off recently—almost killing everyone he loved. *Don't be so cocky, Kent* he cautioned himself. Instead of immediately thrusting the miniature version of the icon into an opening that almost made it seem "too easy," he re-read the inscriptions carefully. *Ah, hah!* his mind yelled with glee. *I see, I understand it all perfectly, now.*
"Come on, Kent, we haven't got all day." Luthor was getting irritated, and waved his weapon in Clark's direction.
*He who holds the key shall know the truth…* Ignoring Luthor, and repeating the inscription on the base of the miniature icon, he turned the golden object over and over in his hands. He had never noticed it before but the markings on the little icon seemed to match some markings on the larger version. Inspecting several indentations and holes on the object in front of him, and taking care NOT to touch anything but the item in his hand, he held it out in front of him, lining up the markings with several sets of glyphs until he found the one that matched perfectly. Glancing at Lois, and giving her a look that signified "everything would be okay" he held his breath, and inserted the little gold object into a rather innocuous-looking hole. Nothing happened. He frowned, and looking at the bottom of the little icon, noticed some markings that at first he had taken for scratches on the outer edge of the base. *Well, I'll be…* he thought. *Looks like some ancient "keeper of the secret" wanted someone to figure out you had to turn the little bugger once you put it in the right hole.* But he still proceeded with caution. Clark was familiar enough with Egyptian archaeology to realize that tombs and treasures throughout Africa tended to be booby-trapped in some fashion. He could set off a release of noxious gas, or deadly blades of ancient metal could come flying out of the icon. Or he could simply have his hand or some other part of his anatomy lopped off—well, not bloody likely, but someone else could pay with his or her life.
"Stand back," he ordered. Everyone scrambled out of the way. Lois had never heard him speak with so much authority. Her respect for her partner increased with every minute he remained in danger.
"Do it now, Kent, or Lane is dead." Luthor was losing his patience.
Slowly, concentrating with every fiber of his being on every fraction of an inch the icon turned, his super-hearing and super sense of touch superseding every other physical sensation, he finally heard the faintest of "clicks"—and as he stared and listened in amazement, a series of tumblers and locking mechanisms started to noisily announce the fact that indeed, Clark had found the secret to the icon, and the truth would soon be revealed.
Taking no further chances, Clark leaped out of the way of the huge statue, in Lois' direction. If nothing else, he would protect her from Luthor and whatever dangers the icon possessed. He landed on the floor in front of Lois, and as he raised himself to protect her from harm, he heard a loud gasp from Luthor.
"Look! A hidden door is opening…it's mine, MINE…" And then they heard him choke. His face turned as pale as wheat paste. He screamed, "No, NO! It can't be…I will NOT be denied!" He raised his gun and pointed it at the icon. With a look of loathing, his lips curled in anger and disgust, his hands shaking as he slowly squeezed the trigger, he aimed and…
and hesitated as he felt Nigel's calming hand cover his shaking one. "Now, now, sir, remember your blood pressure."
"And," his voice lowered to a whisper audible only to his employer and, it so happened, Clark, "your wig has slipped slightly…"
Lex pocketed his gun and passed his hand over his head in a self-calming—and also straightening—manner. "Thank you, Nigel." He turned to his captives. "Oh, how sweet."
Clark realized he was still clutching Lois and she was clutching him right back — until she disengaged quickly and claimed, "It's just a *professional* relationship!"
"I can see… Well, none of this matters. *I don't care* if that so-called ancient treasure *was* Made in Taiwan, I can still melt it down and make a tidy bundle…"
If you can find somebody who wants to buy a big chunk of lead, Clark thought.
"…and this little icon," and he retrieved from its keyhole, "is the real thing and the natives of Bougainvilla will worship me when I wave it in front of them while I'm making off with their natural resources."
"In your dreams, Lex!"
"How original, Lois! Nigel, and you," he pointed at the henchman who had stopped Jimmy earlier, "throw them in the vault with the Kryptonite and lock them in securely. We're not coming back. Let Superman try to save them — they can all die together!"
"Wait, Lex! Take Lois with you!" and Clark pushed her forward.
"Oh, look, Nigel, the romance has gone sour already…"
"Yes, take me—"
"Shut up, Lois. What kind of fool do you take me for—don't answer that. Throw them in the vault with the other two!"
Nigel and the henchmen marched Lois and Clark toward the vault. Clark noticed that Lois had grabbed one of his hands, which was great but distracting, because he was thinking furiously how he could escape the coming exposure to Kryptonite without giving away his Superidentity and putting his friends' lives in danger. But there was no time to think. The vault loomed.
They were pushed inside. Nigel told the henchman: "Go in and check on the other two. I must comfort Mr. Luthor, but I'll also cover the door." The henchman grunted and stepped inside the vault, wary of every possible trap.
Inside the vault Jimmy was conscious again and Perry had been prepared to propel him in a surprise move at any of the bad guys who might enter, but that plan failed because Lois and Clark were pushed in first. The vault itself was featureless except for a stand in the center and on it was a green, glowing rock.
Clark felt himself catch his breath and almost gulp.
But he didn't feel anything more. No pain, no weakening, nothing else he'd have a hard time explaining.
"Clark!" the henchman hissed.
Everyone turned to look as the henchman raised the mask.
"Bunny!" Lois whispered.
"That's *Agent* Bunny, Interpol. You'll all be fine and safe in here. I'll send people back for you if Superman doesn't show up first. Take care!" and she stepped out of the vault and shut the door securely behind her.
Perry grabbed Jimmy, covered his mouth and pointed at the surveillance camera which, Clark calculated, hadn't been able to see Bunny's—*Agent* Bunny's actions.
"Well, that just beats all," Jimmy concluded once freed. "How are we going to get out? I'm going to miss seaQuest at its new time tonight if we don't get out of here…"
"It's been preempted again," Clark informed him, "but they're broadcasting a football game instead."
"It's the Bills—"
"Shut up, Clark! How is Superman going to find us?"
"And, Lois," Perry said, "can he see through this much steel?"
"And air! We could run out of air first!" Jimmy gasped. He laid down quickly and began to breath shallowly.
"And there's this," Clark picked up the "Kryptonite," perhaps Bunny's doing. He tossed it up and down. It felt good. He still had no idea how to get out of this, but at least he'd be in no pain waiting for everyone else to faint from lack of oxygen.
"Let me see that!" Lois grabbed the "Kryptonite" before Clark realized what was happening. She held it up close to her face and turned it over, wrinkling her nose. "Hey, this doesn't look right…" she said, and put a corner of the rock in her mouth. She bit down on it and took it out of her mouth. It was definitely misshapen. "Plastic! It's like —one of those glowing light sticks that kids play with!"
Jimmy sat up, obviously encouraged. "Cool! That means Superman will be able to save us after all! If the air doesn't…run…out first…" Jimmy's face fell, and he lay down again.
"Don't worry, I'm sure Superman, or someone, will be here soon." Clark hated to see the panic in their eyes as they realized they might not make it out of this one, especially when he was sure they would.
"Yeah, Superman's never let me down," Lois said, but even she sounded glum.
"Why don't we all sit down, so we use as little air as possible?" Clark asked, trying to be helpful. He realized, too late, if they all did jumping jacks they'd pass out sooner, and they'd get out sooner. Unfortunately, even Lois took his advice this time.
Some time passed as everyone was lost in their own thoughts. "I'm beginning to feel sleepy," Lois said, yawning.
"That's the air getting thinner," Jimmy said quietly.
Lois turned to look into Clark's eyes. "Clark, since we might not make it out of here, I want to tell you something," she said earnestly.
"Lois, maybe now isn't the time…" Clark glanced over at Perry and Jimmy, who were on the other side of the vault. Perry and Jimmy immediately turned towards their corner of the vault, trying to pretend they couldn't hear every word being said.
"If now isn't the time, when is?" Lois demanded.
"Yeah, I guess you're right."
"At least now I know you're not going to run off somewhere when I'm in the middle of a sentence…" she mumbled, as she moved closer to him and took his hand. "Clark," she whispered, probably futile in the small vault, "I just wanted to say that you're a really great guy and I hope we get out of this because if…when we do, I'm gonna—"
There was a clanging noise outside the door to the vault. Suddenly, the door opened. A policeman popped his head in.
"You folks okay?"
Everyone breathed a huge sigh of relief, and rushed towards the door. Outside of the vault, they all stopped, eyes wide. Lex and Nigel were each handcuffed to a pole mumbling something about "double-crosses," with several policemen watching their every move. "Oh, we found them tied up outside," the policeman explained. "Someone called it in. Do you know anything about that?"
The four of them quickly filled in the police on their ordeal, supposing that Bunny, or her friends, had caught Luthor and St. John on their way out.
"We'll need you to come down to the station tomorrow to give statements. Why don't you all go home and rest?"
They all started towards the door. "Um, I think I'm going to go by the Planet first, and make some quick notes on what happened here tonight…" Lois started making a mental list— "plus there are some loose ends to tie up, like who was behind the assassination of the King, was Bunny really kidnapped…um…I'm sure there are some others I can't think of right now—"
"Now, Lois—all of you—it's too late to get this out in the morning edition, anyway. The officer suggested we should get some rest. Consider that an order from me," Perry said gruffly.
"Okay, Chief," they all murmured gratefully.
"But I do expect to see you all bright and early tomorrow morning."
"Sure, Chief. Lois, can I see you home?" Clark asked, as they walked away from the warehouse, towards a waiting cab that had been called for them by one of the cops.
"Really, Clark, I'll be okay…"
"Oh, c'mon Lois, your place is on the way to mine anyway…"
"Okay," she said, smiling, taking his hand in hers.
Once in the cab, they were quiet for a few moments before Clark's curiosity got the best of him. "So, Lois, what were you going to tell me in the vault?"
"Um, well…I just wanted to apologize for jumping to conclusions about Bunny, and…oh, by the way, *did* you know she was with Interpol? Were you holding out on me again, Kent? Nigerian Princess—hah! I'll just bet—"
"Whoa, Lois. First of all, I didn't know she was involved with Interpol…at least not until her uncle, the King, told m..uh, Superman. Remember, when Superman took His Majesty to the hospital after the attack? And, yes, Bunny *is* a princess. But she's a working princess—she went to Columbia University, got her law degree, and originally wanted to be involved in international politics—the legal end of it. But, she sure shocked me with the Interpol connection. But considering the massive looting and pillaging of artifacts from her country, and the irreparable damage to her country's heritage, I guess it shouldn't surprise me at all." The corners of his mouth turned up in a secretive smile.
"What? Why are you smiling like that?" Lois was all curiousity, and it wasn't just her reporter mode kicking in.
"Well, I've met too few women I truly admire, but I have to admit Bunny is one of them—I mean, she did teach me ballroom dancing." Instinctively Clark put up his hands in mock defense— waiting for the smack from Lois that never came.
"Oh, great," she complained. "Here I go and nearly kill myself trying to make an impression, and.."
"Lois, you were trying to impress me?" He gave her a silly grin.
"Now, don't get all sappy on me, Farmboy! I meant trying to solve this mystery, not…"
"Sshh! You don't have to impress me—you did that a long time ago."
"I did? Really? When…" But the taxi had stopped in front of her apartment building, cutting their conversation short.
"I'd love to continue this conversation, Lois, but it's late, you look tired, and besides we've got quite a job ahead of us in the morning." And, he thought, I've still got night patrol ahead of me. "I'm sure we'll get a chance to talk to Bunny and get this whole mess straightened out. I'd be willing to bet we're looking at an international smuggling ring. Who knows, maybe there's a—"
"—Kerth award in it. Yeah, who knows?" Lois dreamily thought about the implications of this breaking story. "Um, if you don't mind, Clark, I'll see myself to the door." She started to get out of the cab when Clark stopped her.
"Lois, wait! You were going to tell me something else, weren't you?" He looked hopefully at her.
"Oh, it'll keep. I mean, we *do* have an early day tomorrow. I want to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when we put this story together. Maybe we can go out to dinner after this is all over, and I can finish what I started to tell you."
"Sure." He grinned at her. "And, I'm going to hold you to that, okay?"
"Yep, you can count on it. Oh, and Clark—" She closed the cab door, and dropped to eye level, coming face to face with her partner. Before he could react, she gave him a quick kiss on the lips. "Thanks." She quickly turned and headed for the front door of her apartment building.