By Louette McInnes (email@example.com)
Summary: Every once in a while, the Post Office has to remind Superman to pick up his mail — bags and bags of letters, many from people wanting help. One of the letters, from a young boy who fears his father is in danger from drug traffickers, leads to a story for Lois and Clark.
Martha Kent sat with a mound of letters at her feet, slowly opening and reading them one by one. Her son, Clark, came in the front door, jacket on from a walk in the cool autumn air, and stopped abruptly as he noticed her. Lois, entering behind him, nearly bumped into him.
"Mom, don't do that. I'll go through all of them later," he promised her.
"Clark, honey, some of them are SO sad! But look at this one," and she held up a slightly crumpled piece of lined paper. On it, in bright crayon, was a child's drawing of Superman. His legs were too long and his head too big, but the blue and red suit left no doubt as to who the child had drawn. "It just says 'Thank you for saving my daddy.'"
Clark smiled warmly at his mother, but it was also a tired smile. "It's the ones like that. They make it all worthwhile."
"But you brought two BAGS of it home! Does the Metropolis post office get that much mail for Superman every week?" Martha asked in amazement.
"No_and it's built up over time. When they got too much and didn't know how to contact me, they called me_Clark_at the Planet, to see if I could get Superman to collect it."
Lois had taken her jacket off and put it over a chair. She came and sat next to Martha and opened a large, pink envelope. In it was a glossy photo, and a letter asking Superman to please autograph it to "Sylvia".
"At least this one included a stamped, self-addressed envelope with the request!" Lois held it out for Martha to see, then added in a disgusted tone, "Sometimes they seem to think he has telepathy AND Lex's fortune to be able to mail things back to them!"
"It won't take me long to go through it later, Mom, and I can show you and Dad any of the interesting bits."
"And I," added Lois, "am going to burn some of them so you WON'T see them. One or two have been so 'hot', I'm surprised they didn't self-ignite in the mail! I swear I think Cat sends half of them."
"Oh, my!" exclaimed Martha in surprise, looking horrified, as Lois waved a very highly perfumed lavender coloured envelope under her nose.
"Want to bet what THAT one says?" asked Lois acidly.
Clark grinned sheepishly at this comment and said, "Whoever wrote that wouldn't have, if they could have seen me.."
"Smelled you!" added Lois.
"When I helped clear up after that cattle truck that overturned on the way to the slaughterhouse the other day," he finished.
After dinner, Clark disappeared with the mail bags into his room, and emerged half an hour later with several dozen letters for his parents and Lois to see.
"There are more I'll have to check out, but I think these are genuine requests," he said laying one stack on the table, "and this pile is for you, Mom — all the drawings from my 'artistic' admirers." He laughed and held up the best for her, "you'll love this cartoon called 'Problems of a Superhero' — of me trying to wash all the underwear they figure I must have to do!"
Martha took the pictures and looked through all of them. "Some are really clever," she said, "but all of these little artists put in a lot of work. I'll put them in a scrap book and put it up in your old treehouse. What are all the other ones you haven't brought out?"
"They tend to fall into just a few classes," Clark explained, "some want me to give them money, one way or another. Most of them check out phony. I get at least three letters from the same man each time, all with different stories of hardship, but he drives a late model car. I just ignore them now. Then there are the ones wanting something else — autographs, photos, my appearance at some party or talk. If it's for charity, I don't mind. Then there are some genuine ones. One of those on the table is asking me to help an old lady clear some trees blown down in a storm. It's from her neighbor, who sounds just as old. Neither one can do it, and the lady doesn't have the money to hire someone to remove them. Nobody wants the wood enough to remove the trees for free. I don't mind requests like that."
Lois chipped in, "But last time he went to a house because he was told a little boy was seriously ill and wanted to meet him. When he got there, the kid was sick, all right, but only from all the ice cream he'd eaten at his birthday party."
They sorted through the rest of the mail, discussing how Clark could best help the people who had written. A few were set aside for Lois to investigate first. Some of Martha's cookies with coffee made a welcome break afterward. Since Martha and Jonathan had been up early with their farm work, everyone decided an early night was in order. Clark helped his mother fix the sofa since Lois was staying in his room, as usual. Then Martha went off to organize an extra blanket for Lois to ward off the crisp autumn chill, and finally to bed herself with her husband.
Clark lay awake in the familiar darkness of the old farmhouse. He could make out some of the outlines of photos and knick-knacks, furniture and lights. At a slight scuffing sound from the hall, he looked up over the back of the sofa to see Lois feeling her way to the kitchen in the dark. He got up to make sure she could find her way, and whispered, "Want me to put the light on?"
Lois reached out to the outline she could just see and laid a hand on his chest. "No, I'm okay. I just thought I'd get a glass of water _ and say goodnight if you hadn't gone to sleep yet."
Being in Clark's room, surrounded by so many of his things, had made it impossible for Lois not to think about him, impossible to get to sleep when he was so close. Her hand slid up from his chest to touch along the side of his face, gently brush back the lock of hair that kept falling down.
Clark reached out and gently took her face between his hands, then bent to kiss the love of his life, this woman he couldn't bear to do without.
Lois moved to meet him and he could feel her all along the length of his body, every nerve, every sense heightened by her presence. Her satin robe felt cool and smooth as his hands slipped down her back to press her even closer, as if he could somehow weld them together into one being. Lois responded to the pressure of his hands, leaning against him. She had dreamed early on in their relationship of having Superman hold her like this, denying to herself that she could be attracted to a mere country boy. Now she realized no one had ever made her feel so safe, so cherished, without taking away any of her strength or trying to make her any less than she was. If anything, they were stronger together. His hands holding her, sliding along her body, set her skin tingling with the shock of contact yet made her feel like a precious and valued part of his life, cherished and loved. His hands gently traced the curve of her waist and hip, then reversed their motion to just barely brush the curve of her breast and send a streak of white fire through her middle as his hand moved up to gently touch her face again.
Partners, friends, lovers, they were lost in each other, totally immersed in the warmth and wonder of being loved by the other.
A creak as the old farmhouse settled and cooled for the night startled them, and both looked to the hall expecting one of his parents to appear.
"I somehow don't think Mom would be too shocked," he said, smiling at Lois.
"Your mother never ceases to amaze me," she responded. " When she brought the extra blanket, she suggested I should come and get some hot chocolate, and not to worry if I made a little noise getting it." Lois, with Clark's arms still around her, had to giggle at the slightly scandalized look on Clark's face. She stood on tiptoe to give him a quick kiss and said, "Maybe we should get that hot chocolate. Neither of us will be able to get to sleep tonight if we stay this close together."
Lois lay in the dark bedroom, warm from the hot chocolate and the feel of the strong arms that had held her. It had taken time and pain for both her and Clark to reach their present understanding.
Shock, when she realized what Clark had been hiding for so long, had left her numb, unable to sort out her own feelings. She had thought she loved one man, then given him up for another who had crept into her feelings, somehow made himself essential to her well-being despite her best efforts to discourage him. She had thought her partner needed her even more than Superman did. Her initial reaction, when she realized Clark was Superman, had been to respond to that need and it had been the right one, thinking of how alone he must have been, how desperate he had been to rescue his parents. Only later, when the shock wore off and Clark had proposed to her, rather than telling her his secret, did the anger start to build as she tried to deal with her own emotions. Anger at herself for not seeing what was right in front of her, at him for not trusting her. She had criticized Dan Scardino for not sharing his work, not trusting her, only to find the one man she thought DID trust her had kept an even greater secret.
The logical part of her mind had argued that he had been right to hide his secret from her, at least in the beginning. He had been right to keep that secret while she was entangled in the web of deception Lex Luthor had spun. A stab of pain that was almost physical struck every time she remembered her words to Superman the night before she accepted Lex's proposal, "If you were just an ordinary man leading an ordinary life, I would love you just the same." That one sentence, she knew now, had destroyed any chance for him to tell her that night. Then, she had puzzled over Superman's reaction, his coldness.
She had tried to convince herself that Clark should have told her that day, that night, before she accepted Lex, and she had let her anger build around his lack of trust. Only later had she been able to face her own failure and admit how much she must have hurt him that day. She no longer wondered at his coldness when he had come that night as Superman, she was just amazed and grateful that he had still been able to love her at all; to be there as partner and friend; to try to save her from Luthor in the one way she had left him, by bringing Luthor down; to love her so much he would accept what little she had offered, rather than lose her.
She could see now with the clarity of hindsight how he had tried to distance her from Superman, to give her and himself another chance after that awful day. But it had taken time for her to admit that his reluctance to tell her his secret had arisen from her own blindness, the pain she had caused him. He had never deserted her, he had just been afraid to be hurt again.
And when she finally could admit her own fault had caused his reluctance to expose his secret to her, and she could tell him he wasn't alone any more, -he had hurt her. His confusion, his emotions made him panic when she was injured and he had blamed himself.
Looking back, she could now understand his earlier withdrawal the week after Mayson had been killed. Clark had always been upset if he felt he had somehow failed to protect people — Dr. Platt, the people hurt during Luthor's tests of Superman's abilities. He had nearly quit during the tests, rather than have someone hurt because of Superman. Mayson's death had been a shock, but as much because it showed him how vulnerable Lois was.
Lois, in turn, had tried to push him away, but neither could do without the other, and at last they had realized they were stronger together — neither could face being apart. The give and take that came with any lasting relationship still shifted at times, but she knew it would never separate them again. With the sureness of that surrounding her thoughts like a comforting blanket, Lois at last drifted off to sleep.
Back at work early on Monday morning, Lois had been checking out some of the people who had written to Superman asking for help. Clark, she knew, would be late, due to a "traffic jam", or so she had told Jimmy when he had come past.
A mug of coffee suddenly appeared on her desk beside her right hand, and a donut on the left side as Clark leaned over and said quietly in her ear, "Anything else you'd like?"
"Yes, but I don't want to give Perry a heart attack, or get us arrested this early in the morning," Lois answered as she leaned back in her chair until her head nearly rested on his shoulder, and turned so her cheek just touched his.
"Kent! Did you get in at last?" Perry White strode up to his top two reporters. "At least you don't look so tired on a Monday. You were beginnin' to make me tired just lookin' at you last week." He leaned forward and said in a conspiratorial tone, " Lois, you just have to let this boy get more sleep." Then he leaned back, all newspaper editor again. " Now, what have you and Lois got cookin?" Perry looked at the stack of papers on Lois' desk, the ones she hadn't been quite fast enough to cover when he approached while she was 'distracted'.
"Oh, nothing, Chief," Lois waved a pencil in the air, hoping to draw his attention from the pile, thought better of it, and decided to make a virtue of necessity. "Well, actually, I thought we might do a human interest story for a change." She handed the top letter to her boss.
"'Dear Superman," Perry read aloud from the paper covered in large hand printed letters, "would you please help me find my dog, Gromit. He got lost on Saturday, and I know he misses me. Love, Stacey.'" He looked at Lois. "It's a very nice letter, but *why* am I reading Superman's mail?"
"Because he gets sacks of it every month," replied Lois, waving the other papers at him. "We talked to him in the weekend, and he's run off his feet trying to answer letters like this. You know what he's like — he'd try to do all of it if he could."
"So?" Perry asked her. "How is my reading it going to help?"
"That's great, Chief! That's just what I'm hoping some of our readers will ask."
"And?" he prompted her.
"Maybe if people knew about some of their neighbors, and how they could help them, it would take some of the burden off Superman."
Clark had been listening up till now, and finally realized what Lois was trying to do. "That's right, Chief! Maybe some of our readers could help. We could run a small box each week with a list of people needing help. Things a good neighbor could and would do if they only knew about it."
"Maybe even make it a contest, or have one 'good neighbor' written up each week or get some kind of a prize." Lois embroidered the idea as far and fast as she could think. "Superman does so much for the city — it's about time we helped him out. It would be a great idea in the lead up to Thanksgiving and Christmas. Give *him* a present by helping someone *for* him."
"Hey, I like that!" Perry was beginning to see the possibilities. "Not exactly front page headline stuff, but a good, solid, feel good piece. People don't like all bad news for the holidays. Yeah, a regular little feature piece. Make everybody feel good, and do some good for somebody at the same time. And, hey, if it helps Superman, I'm all for it. Did I ever tell you about how Elvis gave this guy $20,000 for an operation he needed and couldn't afford?"
Perry was off on a story, and it took another 10 minutes for Lois and Clark to get approval to look into a few stories first, just to check out some of the details before anything was printed. Perry had got quite enthusiastic and went off to marketing to organize the required publicity campaign, and to the ad department to see if they could talk some of the advertisers into sponsoring some prizes, or come up with some donated goods.
Clark walked around to the side of Lois' desk and leaned the arm holding his coffee cup on the high back. "THAT was inspired. I feel like a small planet has just been lifted off my shoulders." Clark smiled at Lois and she could see he was more relaxed than he had been when he arrived, and much more relaxed than when he had brought the two sacks of mail home on Friday night. But he could see in her face that circuits were still buzzing, and he straightened up and asked, "What?" half afraid of the answer.
"Let's go with this while it's hot," she told him. "Why not get that agent of Superman's, Murray Brown, who channels money to charity, to set up a group or club to handle requests on a regular basis, things a normal human can do, that don't need Superman. They could even handle a lot of the mail. That should take even more pressure off."
"Lois, you're wonderful!"
"No," she retorted, "selfish! I have to share you all the time," an edge of complaint in her voice, "and maybe this will make my share a little bigger." Then she crumpled back into her chair a bit, and asked, "do you think that's wicked of me?"
Clark gave her a stern look. "Completely wicked — and wonderful," he finished, grinning.
Superman watched the boy from 50 feet above as the boy dribbled the basketball down the driveway of the old, weatherboard house and made a shot for the hoop mounted on the front of the garage. The ball rebounded instead of going in, and the boy walked back down the drive to try again. He seemed about 14 or 15. He had lost most of the little boy look of a child while not yet achieving the more angular face and broader build that comes to most boys later. He brushed his brown hair off his face with a casual swipe of one hand before starting up the driveway again.
As Superman drifted down, the boy glanced up and misplaced his shot, which clearly wouldn't even hit the backboard. Superman dropped rapidly to just tap the ball, and it dropped neatly through the hoop. Joel Hodge ran to catch it before it could bounce twice and then he just stood there, staring, mouth open.
The Man of Steel watched as the boy swallowed, gave his head a shake and once more pushed the hair out of his eyes before trying to speak.
"I never really thought you'd come," Joel finally managed to get the words out.
Superman held out a hand and said, "Joel Hodge, isn't it?"
Joel wiped his hand on his shorts, then managed to hold out his own right hand. Superman shook the offered hand, then said, "Can I shoot a few?"
"Sure!" said Joel quickly, and grinning, passed him the ball.
Superman sank a few baskets, then tossed the ball to Joel. "I kind of distracted you before. Let's see what you can do?"
Joel nervously started bouncing the ball, then seemed to relax and threw, dropping the ball through the hoop. He turned and grinned as if life could offer nothing better than this. Superman retrieved the ball and bounced it back to the boy.
"Why do you think your father's in danger, Joel?" Superman stood under the basket, hands on hips.
"It's his work," Joel, now suddenly serious, stood holding the ball between his hands.
"And what work is that?"
"My dad works for Biolab Pharmaceuticals. He's been working on a new drug. It's meant to latch onto the active chemical in cocaine, and block its function, prevent it from having the usual effect. He shouldn't have even told me about it."
"So_why do you think this puts him in danger?"
"I KNOW my dad. He's got paranoid about locking the doors. He won't let me or my sister go out by ourselves lately. He tried to hide some letters, but I found them and they told him to stop his work or face the consequences. It said he'd lose his job, or get careless and have an accident. Now I can't find the letters to show to his boss and ask for help."
"Couldn't the letters just be a research supervisor who thinks that the project isn't worth continuing with, or thinks the research is dangerous to handle?" suggested Superman, slowly closing the distance between them.
"No!" Joel was adamant. "Dr. Richards, his boss, is right behind Dad! His daughter died of a drug overdose and he wants this as much as Dad does."
"Then who do you think wants your father to stop?"
"I don't know," Joel continued, "but I'm really worried."
"Have you talked to your mother?"
Joel looked down, then back up and directly at Superman, not aggressively, but as if bracing himself for some trial. He took a deep breath and started, "My Mom died last year. She had breast cancer and was sick a long time. She managed to hang on to see my sister, Sarah, reach junior high." Joel let out a big sigh, then continued, "Dad and Sarah and I, well, we're pretty close as a family after that. It's why I know Dad is worried about something serious. We've been through a lot and he knows he can depend on us. He'd tell us if it was just the job or the research. But he won't talk and I can't think of anyone who would want his work to stop except people who supply illegal drugs."
At a loss for words, Superman/Clark looked at the boy. He thought about his closeness to his own parents, and how well he might have handled the same trial this boy had survived. He hoped he would have handled it as well as Joel seemed to have done. This certainly was not a silly child in an unjustified panic. He believed the boy really thought there was a serious threat, and was prepared to accept his judgment, at least enough to investigate the matter.
"What would you like me to do?" he asked Joel. "I do keep an eye on drug activity, and I'd like to think I've reduced the amount of drugs that come into Metropolis."
Joel tilted his head to one side, then brushed his hair out of his face again. "I'm not sure," he said uncertainly, "I just thought you must know who the people are that control the drug scene. I thought, when you're watching those people, if you knew about Dad, you could keep an eye out for anything connected to him or at least recognize his name. I'm sure Dr. Richards would hire some security if he knew Dad was in any danger. He'd be able to make Dad take extra precautions, at least."
"You've really thought this out pretty carefully, haven't you, Joel?" Superman asked. "I'll see what I can do."
Joel gave him a small smile and a grateful look, "I know you can't follow my Dad around. You've got too many other people who need help, too. But I just knew you'd try to do what you could. I have to try anything that might help my Dad. Thanks, thanks for taking me seriously. A lot of adults don't."
Superman shook hands with Joel, then went to fly a fast sweep over the harbor, trying to see or smell any drugs on the incoming ships, but there was nothing out of the ordinary that day.
Lois had finished changing into her favorite black dress, the one with shoestring straps and a skirt that hugged her hips but had enough flare at the bottom to flip nicely as she walked. She wanted to be sure she got Clark's mind off all the letters he had been worrying over. She could tell he was tired at times, but he felt he had to investigate and help as many people as he could. Lois knew there was a limit, but getting Clark to admit that as well would not be easy. She was just slipping on her shoes when she heard his knock at the door. She opened it and gave him a quick little kiss, then turned and dashed to the table.
"I'll just grab my purse. Are you really sure you want to go to this cocktail party? A lot of boring people who either don't know each other or hate each other, all eating food they can't stand, just for the sake of being seen in the right company?"
Clark smiled indulgently, and slipped an arm around her waist as she sailed past toward the door. He swept her around and straight into his arms, saying, "Give me a chance to appreciate the merchandise."
Lois placed the wrist bearing her watch completely around behind his neck and looked at the time. "You've got exactly two minutes!" she advised him, then she used her leverage to bring his lips firmly onto her own. Time stretched and slowed and became irrelevant and started for them again only when they at last parted.
"That shade of lipstick just doesn't suit your complexion," Lois told him with a critical look in her eye.
"If we can put them on that way, I'm willing to try any other shades you happen to have on hand," he offered at least half seriously.
Lois got a tissue and started removing the lipstick Clark now wore as much of as she did, smiling at him fondly as she worked.
"We should go to the party," he said. "We were both going to try and get interviews out of this, if you remember. Besides, I really like a chance to watch you move in that dress. It's kinda_ hypnotic when you walk. And the only good reason I can think of for letting go of you right now."
Lois grabbed her purse, looked over her shoulder at Clark, and gave an exaggerated swing of her hips as she walked through the door. She snapped her fingers, pointed two paces behind her, and commanded "Heel, Kent!" Then she walked off down the hallway. Clark stood for a moment, hands on hips, watching appreciatively, then grinned and dashed after her.
The cocktail party proved to be as boring as Lois had feared, but at least she had managed to arrange an interview for the next morning with someone she had been trying to catch for the last month. Clark's contact had failed to show, so they could leave and still have some time for a quiet, late dinner alone. As they were preparing to leave, Lois headed for the ladies' room. The door seemed hard to open, and Lois thought to herself 'all the interesting gossip must be going on in here,' as she pushed harder to try and shove what she thought was a crowd away from the door. It opened enough for her to start to squeeze through, but she suddenly stopped halfway. Blocking the door was the body of a young woman — unconscious or dead, Lois had no way of telling. A determined final push got Lois inside to check for a pulse and find the girl was still alive but unconscious. Backing out, Lois called to Clark.
"Can you find one of the security people or Mr. Patterson? There's a girl on the floor, unconscious, and I think they'd better call a doctor. There's a little pill box beside her on the floor, and I somehow don't think the white powder inside it is crushed aspirin. I'll keep everyone outside for now."
"Good idea, I'll be as fast as I can."
Within minutes, a doctor appeared and was rapidly replaced by an ambulance crew to rush the girl to the hospital.
Clark, meanwhile, had been circulating, trying to smell any drugs and to X-ray and spot any hidden packages. He 'accidentally' bumped into a tall, young man near the door, and a packet of white powder suddenly sprayed its contents on the floor.
"Idiot! Do you know what that's worth?" the young man berated Clark
"About two years. If you're the one who sold it to that young woman who was just taken away," Clark informed him as one of the security people arrived.
"You can't prove that was me!"
"No, but the police may be able to, if that sample matches the one the girl had."
By now more security personnel had appeared and the young man was removed, to be held outside until the police could arrive. As he was going, Clark made a further careful X-ray of the young man's pockets. One of the papers in his jacket pocket contained the name Hodge, and the address Clark had visited earlier that day as Superman.
"Lois, do you know who that is?" he asked as he pointed to the young man between the guards.
"No, but give me a few seconds and I will! Cat knows every male here. She could probably tell you the colour of his underwear, if you want that, too." she added sarcastically and dashed back into the center of the party, emerging a minute later with a big smile. "Try Austin Brooker, the son of Nathan Brooker, that lawyer who always defends the drug dealers."
"Well, junior can just 'phone home' then, I guess," Clark said. "Let's get out of here. Why don't you consult your stomach and see what it says to Chinese, Italian, Thai, or French cooking."
"Seafood? That's not a cuisine! That's you can cook seafood in any of those styles!"
"Okay, anyofthosecuisinesaslongasit'sseafood — style."
Completely exasperated and knowing it was useless to argue, Clark thought a moment and then smiled. "I know this great little place in Jurong town center, in Singapore! You can get any style you want in seafood. You can pick anything you want out of the tanks, and tell the chef what you want him to do with it. They have this dish with little crispy fried cuttlefish that's really nice. It'll be mid-morning there, so the bakery nearby will still have fresh, hot croissants, too."
"Cuttlefish?" Lois asked dubiously.
"Little, crispy, cuttlefish?"
"I — let's just go get some lasagne at Spagalimi's around the corner."
After dinner, as they walked slowly back towards Lois' apartment in the cool autumn evening with Clark's arm around Lois to ward off the chill, he continued his explanation of Joel Hodge's concern for his father. And he asked for her opinion on why the playboy son of a lawyer should have the man's name and address in his pocket. They decided to investigate any possible connection the next day.
The incident at the party of the drug overdosed girl suggested more drugs were getting in recently, despite Clark's patrols as Superman. He had flown patrols, X-rayed buildings, and tried to smell out the drugs themselves or the chemicals used to make them, but obviously some drugs were available still. Clark had thought he smelled something, but it was too diffuse to localize to any one area, let alone one building.
He decided to have one more try that night with less traffic to stir the air and fewer factories going at full capacity, adding extra smells. He stayed only briefly at Lois' as she had to be up early for the interview.
"Clark, what didja do with Lois today? I haven't seen hide nor hair of her this morning. I *can't* believe that girl slept in," Perry asked a he came up to Clark's desk.
"She finally managed to set up that Roskin interview you wanted, while we were at the cocktail party last night."
"Oh! Well _ it should be a nice way to tie up the end of that court case."
"Yeah, Chief, a conviction against the surgeon for criminal negligence may make Mr. Roskin feel better, but it won't put back the leg the surgeon amputated by mistake."
" No, it won't," Lois' voice announced her arrival. "But the cash settlement has left him smiling."
"Clark was tellin' me earlier about that girl with the drug overdose. You thinkin' of doing a drug investigation?"
Lois sat down at her desk, just across from Clark's, and picked a pen out of the holder on the desk. "We haven't really done any for nearly a year. Superman had things cleaned up and there wasn't much to cover, except Nathan Brooker's court shenanigans to get the drug dealers off the hook."
"Huh! Lawyers. Know how many it takes to change a light bulb?" Perry waited, but both Lois and Clark shook their heads. "None — they just talk you into believin' the bulb hasn't burned out, and charge a fat fee for doin' it. I hate drug dealers and their sleazy lawyers, though, so I'll give you two days. Maybe Superman can help you."
"Thanks, Chief. We'll talk to him, but we may have some leads already," Clark said, holding up a folder.
Perry went to check on his other reporters' assignments. Lois came over and perched on Clark's desk.
"So, what's in the folder?" she asked, holding a hand out for it.
Clark handed it to her, then leaned back in his chair where he could appreciate the grey suit she was wearing, and the edge of black lace visible at the neckline of the jacket.
"Seems junior has been a naughty and expensive boy the last few years," Clark informed her. "Three acquittals on technicalities, one suspended sentence, and one court ordered 'vacation' at a drug rehabilitation center. But I haven't found any connection between him and Joel Hodge's father. Also, I'm sure there's some drug manufacturing going on in Metropolis, because I can smell some faint whiff of chemicals. But I can't trace it to anywhere remotely suspicious."
"If someone is manufacturing or refining drugs, they'll need the correct chemicals and glassware. Maybe we should check out the chemical supply companies?" Lois suggested, handing Clark the phone book.
Two hours and a number of phone calls later, they both sat at Clark's desk to pool their information, but they were no wiser about who was using extra chemicals. All the glassware and supplies seemed to be going to legitimate manufacturers like Biolab Pharmaceuticals, where Joel's father worked.
"You've had that boy on your mind, haven't you?" asked Lois, reaching to put a hand on Clark's shoulder.
"Joel really was worried, and I just wish I could do more to help protect his father."
"Clark, Joel didn't expect that of you. You can't be a personal body guard to everyone in trouble, not unless you give up being a reporter." Lois gave him a searching look. She could see the conflict in his face — guilt at not spending all his time helping people as Superman warring with the desire to have some kind of a life as the person under the suit.
"We could do it, you know. You fly, I work." Lois' tone was serious.
Clark, instead of looking any happier, looked even more depressed. "I leave you to do enough now. It's _ not fair on you."
"Have you heard me complain?"
"Just think about it, okay?" Lois paused, waiting until Clark nodded. "Now, why don't we use this investigation as an excuse to talk to Joel's father? What, exactly, does he do at Biolab?"
Clark almost seemed to give himself a mental shake, then shifted to reporter mode, "Dr. Hodge is supposed to work on how cocaine affects the body. Joel said his father was working on a chemical that would block the effect of cocaine. I'm not sure how."
"Okay!" Lois said, rising from her chair and going over to her desk to get her bag. "Let's go find out!"
Dr. Hodge was standing with one of his technicians, inspecting the results of an infra-red spectroscopic analysis of a drug sample when the two reporters arrived. He was dressed neatly in a tweed jacket and tie. The top of the tie was nearly engulfed in a bushy beard as he bent his head and peered at the scroll of IR paper through his glasses. He stood up as they approached.
"Miss Lane, Mr. Kent, I read some of your investigation of the drug scene last year, and I was impressed. How can I help you?" His voice boomed as he shook hands with both of them, but his smile was 1000 watts brighter for Lois.
Lois smiled sweetly and glanced at Clark to see how he was taking this attention to her from the good doctor. The way his smile seemed frozen in place decided her reaction.
"Dr. Hodge," she said in her most businesslike tone, "we understand you know a lot about the drugs that appear on our streets. Your analyses of the drug structures to identify them and of the impurities from different sources — that is what you have done in some of your work, isn't it? — made us think you would know a lot about the drugs and how they are put together. Is that correct?"
Richard Hodge's eyes widened slightly as he suddenly realized this pleasant to look at young woman had a sharp mind, and it was focused on him and his work.
"Why, yes," he answered. "Taking things apart to see how they fit together gives you a handle on how to put them together to begin with. It also tells you how they react and whether you have the exact same molecule in each sample, or a variation. The impurities that can show up are also important in identifying the source of the drug, who made it and how. Destruction and construction go hand in hand."
Lois always responded well to anyone who treated her as intelligent, and she gave Dr. Hodge one of her genuine smiles, the kind that was enough to blind most of the men in any room.
"Why don't we go into my office and sit down?" he suggested.
The office was as disorderly as the doctor was neat. Computer paper had over-run the printer and snaked onto the floor. Piles of books and papers on a table threatened to slide and merge at the least disturbance. It took half a minute to find extra chairs and clear them enough for Lois and Clark to sit down. The one thing on the desk that had a clear space around it was a family portrait. Clark could recognize Joel, and his father. For a moment he almost thought Lois, a young Lois, was in the photo. A dark haired woman in her late 30's was beside Richard Hodge, but in front of him beside Joel was a girl who would have doubled for a younger version of Lois. The hair, the face shape, even the smile were very similar.
Dr. Hodge followed the line of Clark's gaze and picked up the picture. "My family," he said quietly. "My wife died last year after a long illness." Then his smile brightened again, "That's my son, Joel. He's a great kid, and so dependable. And my daughter, Sarah, I think she'll turn out a lot like you, Miss Lane. That's why I couldn't help smiling when you arrived. I felt I could be looking 15 years into the future. She has a sharp mind, and we've always encouraged her to use it." He paused a second, staring at the photo, then said softly, "It's good sometimes to be able to 'see' the future. I wish my wife could have met you before she died. She wanted so much to live for the children." He quickly set the photo aside, and his booming voice and bright smile returned. "Now! What could a chemist do for you?"
"We think that drugs are being manufactured or refined in Metropolis, Dr. Hodge. Superman told us he smelled something strange, like he smelled at a drugs factory before, but he couldn't localize it to one area. We thought if we could find out who uses the chemicals and glassware that would be needed, we might help him narrow the search area or locate the place where it is being manufactured. If we find someone ordering a lot of supplies they have no legitimate use for, that might be a place to start looking." Clark explained their purpose. Having the doctor beam his megawatt smile at Lois no longer bothered Clark, now that he felt it was a more paternal interest.
"Hm, that's a logical place to start. You might find, though, that supplies are being channeled from a number of places. I was just complaining the other day that we shouldn't be short of volumetric flasks. I was sure we ordered more of them and more heaters for distillation equipment. With the breakages any lab gets, it can be hard to keep track of how much you've used. You know, I might just check our stocks again this afternoon. And a friend at Reckitts Chemicals was complaining he always seems short of large beakers, and he swears a leprechaun must be around for the way his magnetic stirrers keep disappearing."
"Dr. Hodge," asked Lois, "would you mind asking around some of your colleagues in the business and see if this is a general trend?"
"I've actually been keeping an unofficial record lately. It's all been very informal and I don't think anyone knows I've been doing it. I'll make a few more calls and fax you what I find when I get back from collecting Sarah and Joel from school."
In an effort to find out whether the research Joel had mentioned might also be a reason for someone to threaten Dr. Hodge, Clark asked him what his current research was about. He seemed to dodge around the answer for a minute, talking about synthesis, and Clark began to toy with the idea that the doctor might be involved in making illegal drugs, himself. He wouldn't have been the first chemist to be tempted by the money, or to give false information to lead people off the track. Just as Clark was resolving to investigate the doctor's research himself, Dr. Hodge leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees, and looked intently first at Lois, than at Clark.
"Have you ever seen what happens to a cocaine addict? It may not be technically addictive as a chemical, but people get dependent on the mental state, the mental boost."
"I could never understand someone who didn't want to control their own life," Lois' puzzled voice informed him.
Dr. Hodge continued. "The effect of cocaine seems to be because it inhibits the natural removal of dopamine in the brain. It locks up the molecule that removes the dopamine, and the dopamine stays in your system to give that high feeling. A couple in love tend to have rather an excess of dopamine — it can be a very pleasant experience, don't you think?" He looked amused as the two of them glanced at each other and blushed. "Anyway, I'm trying to find a counter-key, so to speak, that locks up the cocaine and means the dopamine gets removed at its normal rate. If I can find something that would stay stable in the blood, an addict would effectively be cured."
An alarm bell suddenly went off in Clark's head — a very loud triple bell. If he was right, and Austin Brooker was involved in making or selling drugs, Austin would want to get rid of any man who could identify the product he made and pin it to a certain dealer/maker. Austin would also want to get rid of anyone who could ruin his 'market' by curing Austin's customers. And if that same man was beginning to look with suspicion at where supplies were going, the incentive to remove him or scare him out would be very high.
"Dr. Hodge, could we collect your children for you while you make the calls?" Clark offered.
Lois gave him an odd 'are you out of your mind' look, but Clark ignored it.
"Thank you, no. I've warned them not to go with anyone but me. They wouldn't go. I could depend on Joel to do what he knows is right. But it's kind of you to offer. I should be leaving now, so if you don't mind, I'd best get down to my car."
He shook hands with both of them, and left them at the front reception area.
"Clark, are you out of your mind? Offering us as baby sitters?"
"Think about it, Lois. I could find three reasons why Austin Brooker would have been carrying Hodge's name."
"Then you want to go with him, or follow him?"
"You go back to the Planet. I'll follow him."
Superman patrolled the city, but there was nothing out of the ordinary anywhere near Dr. Hodge. When the doctor was safely back in his office after taking his children home, Clark returned to the Planet where he and Lois started working on the information that arrived shortly by fax from Dr. Hodge.
They were just packing up to go for a late dinner when the phone rang. Richard Hodge's boss at Biolab Pharmaceuticals had rung to tell them that Hodge had been in a car accident on his way home from work and was in a serious condition at Metropolis Hospital. Someone had run his car off the road. He had been conscious enough in the ambulance to insist that Clark Kent be informed. Lois could see how hard Clark was taking the situation by the drawn look on his face. He would be telling himself that he should have been there to save the doctor. They left immediately for the hospital, where Colin Richards had taken his employee's children.
Once Joel was certain that his father would recover, he was persuaded by Clark to stay at Lois' apartment with his sister. They made a brief stop at the Hodges' house to collect a few things, then settled Sarah in Lois' bed and Joel in the spare room.
"I'm spending the night at the hospital," Clark informed Lois, "in case someone decides to finish off Dr. Hodge. He looked and sounded tired, drained, worried.
"Clark, you can't blame yourself! Even if you could spend all your time as Superman, you couldn't help everyone who needed help!" Lois feared she wouldn't get through to him, make him see he couldn't take responsibility for everything bad that happened.
"Maybe I should take you up on that offer," he sat down heavily on the sofa and dropped his head into his hands. Then he looked up. "The more time I spend, the more people seem to need help. You're right, I can't help them all. But I feel so_ bad when I can't help. Like tonight. I should have been there. I knew he was in danger."
Lois moved to sit beside Clark, feeling his tense muscles through the thin fabric of her dress where their thighs touched. She laid one hand along his cheek, turning his head gently so that she was looking into his eyes, and said solemnly, "If you were a surgeon, even the best in the world, there would still be a limit to the number of operations you could do in one day, wouldn't there be?" she asked.
"Yes, I guess so." Clark's eyes had almost closed as if he were very tired, and in pain.
"Who finally brought Lex down? Who helped me prove the shuttle had been tampered with? Who figured out where to find Perry when Bill Church Jr. kidnapped him? Should I go on? It wasn't just Superman. It was Clark Kent, reporter for the Daily Planet. _ You need both sides of yourself, *I* need both sides of you. You couldn't have done those things without the work 'Clark' can do. Giving up being Clark won't mean you can help more people. You may help more individuals as Superman, but some of your most important work has been as Clark — putting a whole crooked operation out of business by your investigation. Do you see what I'm getting at? It may sound cruel, but if *not* following Dr. Hodge means we can put a whole drug operation out of business and save many lives, you know which Dr. Hodge and his son would have chosen. You HAVE to look at it that way. You have to!" Lois was nearly in tears when she finished.
Clark reached up and took her hand and gently kissed the palm, then pulled her forward until his head rested gently against hers. "I _ know you're right," he said quietly, "it just _ it doesn't seem fair to have to choose, to not help everyone who needs help."
"Life_ isn't_ fair." Lois was deliberately harsh.
Clark looked up at this, and knew she spoke the truth. Knew he would have to learn to live with himself despite not being able to help them all — all of those people who needed his help, demanded his help. He would have to make choices. It was a hard lesson, but one that many people before him had learned. It came at a cost. It would never be easy. But it had to be learned if Clark was to keep functioning.
He took a deep breath and held it, then let it out slowly. Putting a hand under Lois' chin, he tilted her head up. He kissed first her forehead, then the tip of her nose, then a slow, gentle kiss on the lips. His hand slid up along her cheek, and the kiss became deeper and more passionate as Lois responded to the feel of his lips. At last he released her as if from a spell. They sat together, with his arms wrapped around her, his cheek resting against her head.
"As long as I have you, I can do it."
Neither moved, or wanted to move, drawing strength and comfort from each other. At last Clark sat up and prepared to stand, intending to go to the hospital. As he stood, a shadow resolved itself into the figure of Joel, coming out of the door of the spare bedroom.
"I'm sorry," the boy said, "I wanted to check on Sarah. Sometimes she still has nightmares."
"That's okay, Joel, Clark was just about to go, to check on your father."
"Joel," Clark said, walking toward the bedroom, "Superman *did* try to keep an eye on your father. He's promised he'll find whoever's responsible. And he told me he is very sorry he didn't manage to stop the car."
Joel stepped forward out of the doorway and into the light. "Mr. Kent, please tell him not to worry. I told him I knew he couldn't guard Dad."
"But you asked Superman for help.."
"Yes, to look out for any mention of my father among the people he knew were involved in drugs. Not to guard Dad. I knew Dr. Richards would take care of the security if I could convince him Dad was in danger. Why should I expect Superman to take time out from helping other people just to provide security when the company would do that as their responsibility? My dad wouldn't have asked for that, either. Dad thought people should be responsible for their own actions, and he accepted the risk he knew he was taking. He just misjudged the size of the risk."
Lois had been alternately watching Joel, and seeing how Clark reacted to the boy's argument. It was almost as if she could see a weight lifting from his shoulders as Joel talked of taking responsibility and not expecting Superman to do what you could do for yourself. Lois looked with new respect at her young pajama clad guest, but she still had a question for him.
"Why would your father put himself at risk in the first place?"
"My dad thought his work was important, and a way for him to repay some of the people who had been good to us when Mom was sick. Mom always said that if someone was kind to us and we couldn't repay them directly, to pass that kindness on to someone else as the next best thing."
Lois looked at Joel and smiled, "That's a lovely idea, Joel. Your mother must have been an amazing person. I wish I could have met her."
"Yeah," he said sadly, "Dad really loved her. It drove him crazy for awhile because he couldn't find a drug to help her. But he didn't know enough about oncology. She told him to use what he did know about, to help other people. It was Mom who got Dad to work on this cocaine problem, so he could feel he was helping someone, somewhere. It saved him after she died, having that to work on — for her."
No one spoke, and the silence lasted several minutes.
"Well, Joel," said Clark at last, "I think your mother was right about helping other people. And I think your father's work is important. You also mentioned taking responsibility for your actions." Clark suddenly seemed to stand a little straighter and taller. "Superman will want some people to take responsibility for what they've done to hurt your father, and Lois and I will do what we can, too, to find these people."
Joel had been looking very somber, but he responded to Clark's assurance with a slow smile. "Thanks, Mr. Kent. And tell Superman thanks, too, if you see him."
"I think maybe he owes you some thanks,_ but I'll tell him."
Joel was puzzled by this remark but had no time to consider it since Lois quickly took him to check on his sister and then sent him back to bed. Meanwhile Clark set out for the hospital.
Clark spent a quiet night at the hospital, thinking over all that Lois and Joel had said. He saw Dr. Hodge just before he left, and was able to assure him that his children were okay. That was all the nurse, who was young and blonde and very efficient, would allow him time for. So as the morning shift arrived at the hospital, Clark left to go home and have a shower and change.
He was whistling and had a spring in his step that Lois hadn't seen for weeks when he arrived beside her desk a short while later.
Perry also noticed the difference when Clark followed Lois into their boss' office.
"Well, aren't we a box o' birds this morning?" Perry was leaning back in his chair behind the big desk, wondering what had caused the change in Clark.
"Huh?" Clark hadn't heard Perry use this particular expression before and was looking at his boss with a puzzled expression.
"Nice to have you back, son," Perry continued, grinning at Clark's confusion. "Now, what about this drug story. Make any waves?"
"We didn't," Clark advised him, "but we think someone else has. He faxed us some information yesterday afternoon and was in hospital less than an hour later. Someone ran him off the road."
"Are you sure you can tie this to drugs?"
"No-o, not 100%, but we haven't been through all the information yet."
"Lois, what do you think?" Perry asked his most experienced reporter. He had learned long ago to trust her judgment on the worth of following a story.
"Perry, we've got parts of a puzzle that involve Austin Brooker, son of Nathan Brooker, the 'attorney to the stars' — of the drug trade. He may have supplied that girl who overdosed at the party. If so, our hospital patient is the one usually asked to prove that. We've got a possible cure for cocaine addiction. No drug dealer would like to see that — it would cut too heavily into his profits."
"Really?!" asked Perry, sitting up in his chair. "I have a friend whose son can't leave the stuff alone. The poor man is desperate to get the boy off it. Whoever comes up with a cure should get a Nobel prize!"
"Chief, can we keep going on this? I_ sort of promised the patient's son we'd do what we could." Clark pleaded, intending to work on his own time if necessary.
"Oh, DID you, now? And here all this time I thought Mr. Stern had made ME the boss." Perry tilted his head to one side as he gave Clark the same look a teacher would give a student who had explained his homework had been done, 'but my dog ate it'.
Lois chimed in as he finished, "Give us at least one more day, Perry. I think when we go through Dr. Hodge's work, things could break fast. If so, it could be a big one."
Perry considered this as he looked first at Lois, then at Clark over the pencil he was holding and rolling back and forth between his thumb and forefinger.
"I'm gonna make a judgment call here. Drugs ruined the King. So if you can break this story in the next 24 hours, I won't break you down to covering the opening of the new sewage treatment plant."
"Thanks, Perry!" Lois said over her shoulder, already on her way out the office door.
"Let's see what we've got!" Lois was laying out bits of paper all over the conference table. "At least 8 companies have come up short on their orders for the last 4 months — either glassware or chemicals that could be used for manufacturing drugs."
"I've checked out the companies." Clark added his own research, "They aren't interconnected through some parent company. There's no one on more than two boards, to tie the activity together. Deliveries are made by several courier firms, so there's no common element there to remove the stuff. That seemed the easiest way to spirit anything away._ I can't find anything obvious to tie them together."
"So, we go for what's *not* obvious. What else do they all need? Have we got employee lists? Any relatives at several sites?"
"No. _ What do we have that no one notices? The cleaners! We know how easy it is to get in like that. But not on a regular basis. Repairmen_ plumbers, electricians_ but that isn't regular, either." Clark looked up to slowly scan the newsroom. "Vending machines! You have to have someone come regularly to service them. And they always seem to have piles of boxes on a cart of some kind."
"So let's see if they all have vending machines, and if they all are with the same service."
Lois was already looking at the phone book for vending machine services, while Clark pulled up the chemical company profiles. A few phone calls, and they thought they might have a plausible method for removing the supplies. Clark pretended to be a firm new to the area, and asked each of the 8 companies to recommend places to get office supplies, cleaning supplies, and what vending service to use. Some further digging showed that not only were all 8 places supplied by one vending service, but all of them were also serviced by the same person, Kelvin Snelgar, who had started with the vending company five months before. Things were looking up at this stage. But they still needed to find out where the drugs were being made and refined. Another call to the vending service to locate Kelvin for his 'insurance agent' got them a copy of his route.
"Let's plot all this on a map. Maybe that will help us make sense of things," Clark suggested.
Jimmy was sent to find one, and returned shortly with a large map of Metropolis. The companies losing supplies, and Kelvin's route were marked out. Everything centered on the southeast end of town. Clark decided to take a sweep over that area, and left Lois to double check the map work. He returned in just a few minutes.
"It's what I said before. There's a vague smell, but it's diffused all over that area. If anything, it seems to be more at the edge, where the 8 companies are, than in any one location." So they coloured in a vague cloud, that, as they shaded, seemed to almost follow Snelgar's route.
"The smell can't be from his van. It's too small for a drug operation!" Lois was adamant.
"I X-rayed most of the buildings in that ring, anyway, and I couldn't see anything. I've done that before when I got that same vague smell. Nothing."
"What's that on the map?" asked Jimmy as he arrived and put down a mug of coffee for each reporter.
"We're mapping a peculiar smell that Superman noticed."
"A big, smelly, donut to go with your coffee? Instead of Perry's favorite jelly donuts?" Jimmy joked.
Lois was sitting dejectedly, elbow on the table to prop her up. "Thanks, Jimmy, that comparison really brightens my day."
Clark didn't seem to notice the coffee now sitting by him on the table. Instead, he was concentrating on the map. "When Mom made donuts, I always thought the hole was the biggest treat." He paused, his brow wrinkled in thought. He began tracing over the ring on the map, then drawing lines from company to company across the hole. "What if _ the whole answer is in that hole. What if _ you wanted to make drugs and not be detected. You steal the supplies, a little here and a little there. You reverse the process to get rid of any smell. Not the van, but underground pipes. Wouldn't take much to use the storm drains or_ maybe_ old, disused water pipes in that part of town." He looked up at Lois as he finished, asking by his look, whether she thought his idea was totally crazy. But Lois was concentrating on the map, now, too. She broke into a smile, the kind of smile a cat gives a canary before it pounces.
"If the pipes are underground, do you suppose the whole operation could be hidden that way so Superman wouldn't be able to find it in his sweeps?" she asked.
A bit more work on the map showed only two buildings that were in the area with easy access to drains and old water pipes, and that were also visited by Kelvin Snelgar on his regular route.
Feeling pleased with themselves and their day's work, they collected some pizza and videos they thought would appeal to their charges, Joel and Sarah, and headed for Lois' apartment, where the two Hodge kids had been left for safety.
Clark didn't stay late at Lois' apartment, leaving just after 10 p.m. He went home only to change and leave on a patrol of the city. This time, he drifted slowly over the city and concentrated on the chemicals in the southeast area. The same vague smell as before was diffused over the area marked by the donut on the map that he and Lois had been working on. A manhole provided access to the stormwater system, and the smell seemed stronger inside the drain. Clark took the direction that would lead him toward the center of the donut, and soon the smell was noticeably stronger. It wasn't long before the rhythmic vibration of a fan became apparent, and the sound led Clark to a newish looking grill in the side of the old drain. The smell was emanating from the space beyond the grill. Removing the grill, Clark reached out and stopped the fan blades and removed the fan itself. He followed the new tunnel, which now angled downward, to another grill. An attempt to X-ray the structure beyond proved fruitless since the basement was lined with lead.
Rather than warn the inhabitants, Clark bored up to the surface and found he was outside a warehouse that purported to be Davison Paints. He quickly filled the hole where he had emerged, and went on to finish a tour of the city before returning home. He hadn't managed much sleep while at the hospital the previous night, and wanted to be sure he was alert the next day.
As soon as the two partners met early at the Planet the next morning, Clark asked Lois to phone Detective Maggie Reid. Lois told her she had received a tip and suggested Reid have some cars waiting near a warehouse belonging to Davison Paints that morning at 10 o'clock. That gave Lois and Clark some time to investigate Davison Paints.
A quick check of the company structure turned up paydirt.
"Have a guess who's on the board of Davison Paints." Lois raised an eyebrow as she looked at her partner and tapped her pencil on the sheet she was holding. "I'll give you a hint. He's young, rich, and you bumped into him at that cocktail party the other night."
Clark leaned forward and rested his elbows on his desk, then he gave Lois a very large and satisfied grin and said, "I guess Superman had better head straight for the office records when he arrives this morning."
What would have delighted Clark even more, if he had known at that stage, was that Austin Brooker, out on bail already, was just then enroute to the warehouse. Someone had called him after they noticed the lack of air circulation through one vent, thinking it was due to a small cave-in of the tunnel to the drain. The person hadn't been able to get past the point where Superman had bored to the surface, so hadn't seen the damaged fan.
Clark rose from his chair and, by habit, smoothed down his tie, and walked over to Lois' desk to stand beside it.
"You know," Lois remarked, leaning one elbow on her desk and using that hand to wave a pencil at the blue tie with offset rectangles on it, "I bet your dad has some ties like that stuffed in the back of his closet from, oh, say 30 years ago?"
This caused Clark to look down self-consciously at his tie, and automatically smooth it down once more.
"That is *such* a disarming gesture."
"Playing with your tie. It's a classic 'displacement' activity, what seagulls do when they're unsure of themselves. It's so — 'Clark'." Lois had sat back in her chair and was smiling in amusement at his discomfort.
"Hey, CK! Don't let her give you a hard time!" Jimmy advised as he strolled up to them. "Boy, are you two in good with the Chief! You know that idea you had earlier in the week when you got the Chief to read that letter to Superman?"
The two reporters looked at each other, then turned their attention to Jimmy.
"Well, you're not gonna believe this, but the promotions department is almost having to turn businesses away. They've got more sponsors than they know what to do with!"
"That's great, Jimmy!" Lois told him. "I hoped we'd get *some*, at least, if we said it was to help Superman."
"Well, apparently the combination of generating some 'warm fuzzies' in their customers, and helping Superman was more than their cold little commercial hearts could withstand!"
"So_the Chief is going to use the idea?" asked Lois.
"Didn't you guys see the paper yesterday? We already ran the first 'Good Neighbor Wish List'. Angela is going crazy answering all the phone calls with offers of help."
"That's really nice, Jimmy." Hands in his pockets, Clark had on the happiest smile Jimmy remembered seeing in weeks. Jimmy grinned and said, "I guess Lois was right _ about people wanting to pay Superman back for what he's done for the city. And about them wanting to feel they could have something in common with Superman if they helped their neighbors the way he helps people. Kinda neat, don'tcha think?"
Lois, seeing Clark's pleasure, began to feel the coming holiday season might be a special one for both of them.
Suddenly realizing how the time had slipped by, Clark looked at his watch, then at Lois, "We'd better hurry! Didn't your 'source' recommend that Detective Reid be in place by 10a.m.?"
Lois was suddenly all action, almost bouncing from the chair and grabbing her bag. "C'mon, partner!" was all she said as she headed for the elevator.
Parking near the warehouse, Lois went to find Maggie Reid while Clark changed and headed in through the drain system, the same way he had gone the night before. Moving faster than a human eye could process the images that arrived on the retina, Clark swept through to the underground office. He moved the records and computer discs to a place where they would be safe, but easily found in a police search. Then he moved to the processing area. From here, he collected a bag of white powder and quickly dusted it in a trail to the main outer door.
His problem then became one of inducing the 'employees' to make a hasty exit. Some smelly but relatively harmless butyric acid was the key. A bottle slid off a shelf in the lab area, and very soon the entire warehouse smelled like rancid butter. Employees, handkerchiefs over faces, rapidly headed for the door and fresh air beyond. This still would not give Det. Reid a reason to enter, so Clark took one of the large packs of white powder and tossed it hard — it landed and split in a cloud of white dust only yards from Reid. Then Clark, once he was sure everyone was safely out in the fresh air, carefully went out the way he had come in. He didn't want to give the elder Brooker any excuse to accuse the police of having entered the building illegally, which Brooker would have tried to do if he could show they had been helped by an illegal act, namely, Superman having broken in and thrown out the cocaine.
By the time he 'officially' arrived as Superman, flying in from the north, most of the employees had been rounded up. Reid, with Lois dogging her every step, had found the trail of cocaine and followed it to the lead shielded basement.
No one at first noticed Austin Brooker, dressed in a janitor's overalls, hiding behind some pallets filled with large tins of paint. In the confusion, as the police tried to round up the coughing, and rather green looking drug makers, Austin made it to his car and was just starting to pull away when he seemed to lose traction. He revved the engine of his grey Mercedes, but still the car didn't move. That's when he noticed, out of the corner of his eye, a flutter of red in his rear view mirror. His foot came off the accelerator, and he smashed both fists down on the steering wheel in anger. But he knew better than to run. What he did do was take out a slip of paper from his shirt pocket and try to burn it. A freezing cold blast of air blew out the lighter and left frost on the paper and his fingers, which were now too stiff and cold to move.
Superman stood beside the driver's window, arms folded as usual across his chest, and smiled as Maggie Reid came running up to the car. "Det. Reid! How nice to see you. I think you may want to have a look at that paper in Mr. Brooker's hands."
"Why, ah might just do that. If you don't mind, Mr. Brooker, I'll have that," she said as she slipped the paper out of his still frigid fingers.
"Just as well I was flying patrol and noticed your cars staked out nearby."
"A very lucky break," Reid agreed, still deciphering the information on the paper she had taken from Brooker. "Well, Mr. Brooker, I think you might have cooked your goose with this one! Superman found the car involved in the accident where a Dr. Hodge's car was run off the road last evening. My, my,_ seems you're acquainted with the owner! What a coincidence!"
Lois ran up to the car, having lost Reid in the confusion. "Superman! What are you doing here?" she played into the scene. "One of my sources said there would be a good story, but I didn't expect to see you, as well. Can I get a statement? Please?"
"I'm sorry, Lois. Maybe I could give you something later. I was on my way somewhere else when I noticed the police cars."
"That's okay, Superman. I know how busy you must be."
A few minutes after Superman left, Clark dashed up to Lois. "Sorry I got held up trying to park the car. Did I miss anything?"
Det. Reid looked up from the note she had taken from Brooker, and said, "Just a spoiled brat. Guess he'll be callin' his papa about now. That'll make him *real* popular at home."
"Maybe," suggested Lois, "Nathan Brooker will be so busy saving junior's hide again that you can nail some of the other criminals in Metropolis."
"What a pleasant thought! That just about makes my day. Lucky thing that Superman *just* happened by to snag the young whelp!" and with that comment, Reid walked off to oversee the search of the building.
Joel knew his shot wouldn't quite make the basket and was running to retrieve the ball when it suddenly swerved slightly and dropped through the net. He felt an odd puff of wind and looked up to see Superman waving to him. He brushed the hair out of his face and waved back. The Man of Steel swooped in to stand beside him and hold out his hands in a request for the ball. Joel gladly obliged. They played one on one for a few minutes before either spoke.
"Thanks for finding out who was behind the threats to my dad. He'll be home in just a few days," Joel informed Superman, then he jumped trying to block a shot that was about to sail over his outstretched arms. Joel suddenly found himself 5 feet off the ground and able to grab the ball.
"I should be thanking you, Joel," Superman said as he let Joel gently down to the ground.
"Me? Why?" Joel looked stunned.
"I get a lot of requests for help, and I can't answer them all, no matter how hard I try. ___ Clark Kent told me what you said the other night after your father was nearly killed. Even Superman can feel bad about not managing to help everyone, but your comments helped a lot. Thank you."
Superman held out his hand as he had at their first meeting, and Joel responded with his own. Then the boy watched as the blue and red figure disappeared upwards to merge with the blue of the sky.
Lois used the key under the mat to let herself into Clark's apartment, planning on fixing an intimate little dinner for two as a celebration for finishing the drug story. Dropping her handbag on the floor, she dumped the bag of groceries on the kitchen table. She was wearing the same black dress she had worn to the cocktail party. Her hair was wind-blown and one of the straps of her dress had slipped off her shoulder. In something of a rush to get started before Clark arrived, she tossed her high heeled shoes to one side so she could move faster and ran a hand through her hair before unloading the groceries. She turned to survey the room and froze as she saw the dining table. It was already set for two, with a bottle of wine standing to one side of a pair of candles. Clark's glasses also lay there. She walked over to the table, then turned looking for Clark, and heard a swish of air outside. She looked toward the back door and smiled.
He rushed in wearing the familiar red and blue outfit. Startled, he stopped in his tracks as he saw her.
"I just…you weren't home." He looked surprised, but that quickly turned to a smile as he noticed her dress. "I'll get changed."
"That's right! No. I want you to just stay like that for a few minutes." She smiled and clasped her hands behind her back, which made her look like a mischievous little girl.
"Oh?" he asked, smiling back at Lois and walking slowly over to her. He had noticed the strap that had slipped off her shoulder and very carefully lifted it into place, then held her gently by the shoulders.
Lois reached around to the table and picked up the glasses, holding them out to Clark.
"Put them on," she told him. And after he had done so, she ruffled his hair with her hands until it was Clark looking at her from inside the suit. She placed both of her hands on the symbol on his chest. "I just wanted to talk to both of you at one time."
Clark smiled down at her, but the smile held a touch of amusement. It was one of the things he loved about her, even when it frustrated him — she always kept him slightly off balance. He couldn't imagine how life with her could ever be boring. Busy, frustrating, dangerous, even exasperating at times — exhilarating and wonderful, too, but never boring.
"We're here," he said.
"You told me how you almost gave up in the beginning, when Lex Luthor was testing you, because you were afraid someone would be hurt because of you."
"I know. And it was you who convinced me to keep on — told me that people needed something to give them hope, even if I couldn't help them all."
"That's just it, Clark. That's still true. And you can't wear yourself out feeling guilty when you can't help. Joel was right. People have to take some responsibility for themselves, not just depend on Superman. And look how well the people of Metropolis have responded, given half a chance to do that and to help Superman."
"It's_ amazing," he said. "I never imagined people in a big city could be so generous."
"There's something else," Lois continued, moving forward until their bodies made contact. She could feel the warmth of his hands on her bare shoulders. His thumb slid back and forth hypnotically, insistently, along the strap of her dress, increasing in tempo and pressure as he reacted to her touch. "It took me a long time to see. I always thought of you, in that suit, as invulnerable. I chose Clark over Superman because Clark had faults, and he needed me. He was real." Lois was looking at him intently now, unconsciously drawing slow circles with one hand over the S he wore. "You said we were stronger together. And we are. But that's all three of us — Lois, Clark, and Superman. You beat Brooker because you used *all* that you are, not just a part."
The slow movement of Lois' hand on his chest was creating a spreading center of warmth, and he slipped his hands down to her waist to draw her even tighter to him. Clark tried to speak, but Lois laid a finger on his lips.
"Lex told me, the first time I tried to interview him, that his real gift was to see things in people. He saw in Superman what it took me a long time to see, even when I knew you *were* Superman. You have a heart, a conscience. You can't see someone needing help and not try to give it. He saw that as your weakness, that even the Man of Steel was vulnerable. I know it upsets you when you can't always help, like with Joel's father. But we can get through that together because *I* love all that you are, not just one part. Clark and Superman, I can't keep them separate any more."
Lois suddenly gave him a wicked smile, "So, whoever's in there better kiss me." She slipped her hands up over his chest, wrapping her arms around his neck, and held her face up.
The heat from her hands had spread all through Clark's body, and he felt as if some incredibly strong force was pulling him to her. As his lips met hers, the force between them became overpowering and he lost all awareness of the rest of the universe.