By Nan Smith firstname.lastname@example.org
Disclaimer: The familiar characters and settings in this story do not belong to me. They are the property of DC Comics, Warner Bros., December 3rd Productions and whoever else can legally claim them. Any new characters, scenes and
the story itself are mine.
By Nan Smith
Lois Lane Kent propped her shoulders against the pillow, elevating her head a few inches. "I'll be fine, Clark," she assured her husband. "Go on. The sooner you go, the sooner you'll get back."
He nodded, reluctantly. "You're sure you have everything you're going to need?"
"I think I can manage for the next thirty minutes by myself," she said. "Go!"
"Would you like another magazine?"
"Go!" Lois glared at him. "I'll be fine!"
He appeared to gather his resolution and bent to kiss her. "I'll be back as fast as I can."
"I *know*! Go on!" Lois pecked his cheek. "Once your mom is here, I'll be better off, anyway. Besides, Mother said she might drop by this mor --"
He was gone in the blink of an eye, the sonic boom left by the passage of Superman echoing behind him.
Lois gave a soft laugh. Clark didn't make an issue of it, but Ellen Lane was one of the few law-abiding citizens who had the power to set his teeth on edge.
She glanced at the clock on the opposite wall. Ten o'clock. It would be eight in Kansas. She hoped it wasn't too early for Martha.
Wait, what was she thinking? Martha had undoubtedly been up at five, milking the cow or whatever she and Jonathan did at five A.M.
The doorbell rang. Lois turned her head toward the entranceway, reminding herself not to try to get up. "Who is it?"
"Lois?" her mother's voice called.
"Come in, Mother!" she said, loudly enough for her mother to hear her. She heard Ellen fumbling with the lock and the outer door opened. A moment later, the inner door opened and Ellen Lane stepped into the room, closing it carefully behind her.
"Hello, Mother," Lois said.
"How are you feeling?" her mother asked.
"Fine," Lois said. "I thought I'd go online in a bit to see what's on the news. And I still need to organize my research notes for that article I'm doing for the Sunday Feature --"
"Lois," Ellen Lane said, reprovingly, "you're supposed to be resting!"
"No, I'm supposed to be lying down," Lois contradicted. "Dr. Klein said I could do anything I wanted as long as I stayed horizontal."
Ellen raised an eyebrow. "Are you sure about him, Lois? I've never understood why you prefer a research scientist who dabbles in obstetrics rather than an OB specialist."
Lois muffled an exasperated sigh. "Clark and I have our reasons, Mother."
"Speaking of Clark," Ellen said, "I wanted to tell you what happened the night you were at the hospital."
"Mother, if it's about Clark's supposed disappearing act --"
Ellen took a seat in the armchair and set her purse on the floor. If Lois hadn't known better, she'd have thought Ellen was nervous. "I said something that upset the children," she began. "I wanted to tell you about it."
"I was talking to your father about Clark, and Marta and CJ overheard. They were upset." Ellen folded her hands in her lap. "I'm sorry. I didn't think they'd overhear. Marta wouldn't even talk to me afterwards. She shut herself in her room." She shook her head. "She still won't listen to me."
"What did you say that made her so angry?" Lois asked, already sure of the answer.
"Clark's disappearances. I said ..."
"She heard you imply that Clark is seeing another woman," Lois said.
"I'm afraid so."
"Do you blame her for being angry?"
Ellen shook her head. "I suppose not. But Lois, how is she going to react when Clark leaves you for another --"
"Mother!" Lois nearly pushed herself upright and stopped herself in mid-motion. "Stop right there!"
"Lois, I'm thinking of you and the children."
"So am I. And, I'm thinking of Clark!" Lois stopped and took several breaths, trying to bring her temper under control.
"No, Mother!" Again she breathed. "I'm tired of your insinuations about my husband," she said, keeping her voice under control by sheer force of will. "I'm saying it right now. The subject is off limits from this moment on. Clark is *not* cheating on me and never has. He's put up with this for my sake, and I've put up with it for too long. He's the best, most faithful man I know. We haven't said anything in the interests of family harmony, but when you upset the children, you've gone too far."
"Lois, I didn't expect them to hear me --"
"That's immaterial, Mother. I'm telling you now. Don't bring the subject up again. Clark is a good man. He doesn't cheat on me. There *is* no other woman, and never has been."
"Are you certain? How can you be?"
"I'm certain." Lois forced herself to relax and tried to make her heart slow down, with indifferent results. "The subject is closed."
Ellen shut her mouth with a snap. Lois knew that she hadn't convinced her mother but, short of telling her the whole truth, she was sure that nothing would.
The fact was, she was quite sure that both Ellen and Sam could be trusted with Clark's secret. She and Clark hadn't told them for their own safety, but Ellen's suspicions at his frequent absences were causing a great deal of unnecessary discord. Ellen's experiences with a cheating husband had made her overly suspicious of Clark. If she knew the truth, it would settle the subject once and for all. Lois bit her lip, fighting the battle again in her own mind.
It wasn't as if no one knew, after all. Perry, Jim and Dr. Klein had figured it out on their own and it had become necessary to tell Sandi and Alice as well. Bill Henderson had discovered the truth five months ago, and at some time, so had CJ's girlfriend, Linda. Wyatt Dillon had also put two and two together. She had come to the conclusion that Wyatt could be trusted, after he'd learned the truth about CJ and kept it quiet. Each of the people who knew the secret was a close friend of the family and completely trustworthy. They realized the importance of keeping Superman's secret a secret. Sam and Ellen would know it, too, and she had no doubt in her mind that they would never willingly put her family in danger. Perhaps it *would* be best to tell them. She made a mental note to talk it over with Clark.
Ellen stood up. "Would you like me to make you some hot chocolate?" she asked. "This kind of stress isn't good for you." She paused. "You have the right to be angry with me. I only hope your faith in him is justified."
"It is." She turned her head at the faint "whoosh" audible through the window. Clark was back with Martha.
A few minutes later, the front door opened and Martha Kent entered, followed by Clark, carrying a pair of suitcases.
"I'll just put these in the spare room," Clark said, and headed for the stairs.
Ellen glanced at him and turned to Martha. "How are you, these days?"
"Oh, fine." Martha hurried over to the sofa. "How are you doing, Lois?"
"I'm fine." Lois cast a glance at the stairs where Clark had gone. Now wasn't the time to discuss the subject, of course, but now that she'd decided to do so, it was hard to wait.
"I'll put on the hot chocolate," Ellen said. Martha looked after her as she went into the kitchen, then back at Lois.
"What's wrong, honey?"
Lois bit her lip. "I'll tell you later. Clark and I -- and you and Jonathan -- need to talk. This thing is getting out of hand."
"Oh. That subject again, hmm?"
"Yeah," Lois said. "That subject again."
Ellen measured out milk into a small pan and let it warm on the stove, aware of voices in the other room. She'd managed to do it again, she thought. What had started as a confession had ended up as another argument over her son-in-law's vanishing act. Why couldn't Lois see how suspicious his behavior was? She seemed to have no doubts about his fidelity. Was she completely in denial about the man?
What she needed was evidence, she decided. She had to find out where Clark went when he disappeared on one of his urgent departures. Then she would be able to confront Lois with the actual facts. And if it turned out she was wrong, on the unlikely chance that Clark wasn't cheating, she could stop worrying about it.
The milk was steaming. Carefully, she poured it into a mug and added chocolate syrup. It was only after she had finished that she realized that the mug was Johnny's, with a vivid picture of Superman in flight on it. Oh well, Lois probably wouldn't care.
She picked it up carefully and bore it through the swinging door into the living room. Clark had returned from putting Martha's suitcase away, and was sitting next to Lois on the sofa, holding her hand. Didn't Lois see how suspicious that was? They had been married for nearly twelve years. How many men held their wives' hands after that many years of marriage? The man had to have a guilty conscience!
Ellen placed a coaster on the coffee table and set the mug on it. "Hot chocolate," she said. "I hope you don't mind the Superman mug."
"Clark was drinking coffee out of Jimmy's Batman mug this morning," Lois said. "Thanks, Mother."
Clark stood up. "Well, I promised Perry I'd come in after I picked up Mom," he said, "so I'd better get going. Are you going to be all right, honey?"
"I'll be fine," Lois assured him. "Don't forget to pick up that packet of stuff that Jim put together on the Murray bribery case."
"Not a problem," Clark said.
"And tell him thanks," she said. "It was great of him to take time out of his schedule to dig it up for me. He's still better than any researcher that the Planet has hired since he moved up to the city beat."
"That's for sure," Clark said. He bent to kiss her. "I'll try to be home on time, unless something comes up."
"I'll be fine," Lois said, a second time. "We'll see you after work."
"Call me right away if there are any problems," he said.
"I promise," Lois said. "Go on, Clark. Perry expects to get some work out of you today."
"Okay." He hesitated. "Is there anything I can get you before I go?"
"Clark, I'll be *fine*," Lois repeated, again. "Go on."
As he closed the door behind him, Ellen frowned after him. He certainly seemed concerned enough about Lois. Still, it could all be a smokescreen. She made a note to call the Daily Planet in an hour or so to see if he was actually where he was supposed to be, and turned to Lois and Martha. "So, Martha, what have you and Jonathan been up to lately?"
Clark had returned from Bill Henderson's political rally and was writing up his notes when the phone rang. He answered it, while mentally composing the article for the Planet's political section. "Kent."
"Clark?" It was Ellen Lane's voice.
"Hello, Ellen. Is Lois all right?"
"She's fine, Clark. I was wondering if you'd like to have a cup of coffee."
Now what, he wondered. "Sure, Ellen. Where?"
"How about in the coffee shop around the corner from the Planet?"
"I'll meet you there in five minutes."
His mother-in-law hung up. He put down the phone and returned to his article, wondering what was going on in Ellen's mind this time. Lois's mother was extremely suspicious of him, he knew. Her own rocky marriage had made her distrust all men, and his disappearances weren't helping. Maybe, he thought, it was time to lay her suspicions to rest once and for all. It would certainly end one source of family discord, one that, he knew, was slowly driving his wife to distraction, and had now upset the kids. He had heard Marta vowing never to speak to her grandmother again, and although he doubted that his daughter would hold to the promise, it had been four days now and Marta still wasn't speaking to Ellen. In fact, when her grandmother had tried to apologize, she had been met with a frozen-faced little girl who turned and walked away without a word.
Of course, he wasn't supposed to know about that, but he hadn't quite been able to resist peeking in on the confrontation. It had left him with a sense of disquiet. Things couldn't be left as they were, that was for certain. When he got home, this evening, he would broach the subject to Lois.
Quickly, he finished the article, LANned it to Perry and stood up. He still had thirty seconds to get to the coffee shop.
Ellen was sitting in a booth at the rear of the room when he arrived, drinking a cup of coffee. Clark made his way to the booth and slipped into the seat across from her. "Hello, Ellen."
She gave him a reserved smile. "Hello, Clark."
The waitress arrived with a coffee cup and Clark and Ellen were silent as she poured coffee for him. He busied himself with adding cream and four sugars to the brew as the woman walked away, and then met his mother-in-law's eyes across the table. "Is something wrong, Ellen?"
She was frowning. "I wanted to ask if Marta had spoken to you about the other night, Clark."
Superman didn't lie, he reminded himself. "No, but if you're referring to the argument, I know about it."
She bit her lip. "CJ told you, I suppose."
Clark didn't answer.
"I want to apologize for what happened," Ellen said, abruptly. "I didn't mean to upset the children."
Clark met her eyes, steadily. Maybe it was time to take the bull by the horns, so to speak. "I imagine not. On the other hand, the subject hasn't gone away, has it?"
Ellen's cheeks grew slightly pink. "You believe in being direct, don't you, Clark?"
"I suppose," Clark said, quietly, "that it won't matter if I tell you that I'm not cheating on Lois, and never have?"
Ellen didn't answer for a long moment. Clark sipped his coffee in silence.
"Do you know," Ellen said, setting down her empty coffee cup, "how many times Sam denied that he was seeing another woman?"
"No," Clark said. "On the other hand, do you have any reason to suspect me of the same, Ellen -- other than the fact that I haven't accounted to you for every minute of my time? I can't prove to you that I'm innocent of what you obviously suspect me of -- but it's very difficult to prove a negative, if not impossible."
"Where were you at three o'clock?" she asked, suddenly. "I called your office --"
"To check up on me? I was at Bill Henderson's fundraiser for the mayoral election. The article will appear in the Daily Planet, tomorrow morning."
"Oh." Ellen fell silent as the waitress approached.
They were silent until she had gone, again. Clark frowned thoughtfully into his coffee. The subject was obviously bothering Ellen a great deal, and he could hardly blame her for caring about her daughter and grandchildren, but he was not-unreasonably piqued at her distrust of him.
"I suppose it won't help," he said, finally, "but you're wrong, Ellen. And I would appreciate it if you don't bring up the subject again within Lois's hearing -- especially right now. She doesn't need the aggravation."
Ellen nodded. "I understand that. My daughter loves you and trusts you. But if you betray that trust --"
"I have no intention of betraying her trust -- now, or ever." Clark consciously kept his voice level. "Lois and our children are my life, and nothing can ever change that. I'm sorry you feel the way you do about me, but there's not much I can do about it."
Ellen didn't answer for several seconds. "I hope I'm wrong," she said, at last. "I like you, Clark. But you're so much like Sam when we first met. I found out about him the hard way.
He raised an eyebrow. "I'm not Sam," he said.
"True. I hope I'm just being paranoid. Maybe I am."
"Clark?" a feminine voice said. "Am I interrupting?"
He glanced up. Candy Valenzuela, the office society columnist, was standing by the table. As usual, she was dressed in an outfit that was probably technically legal, but certainly inappropriate for her surroundings. On the other hand, what she was wearing would have been inappropriate just about anywhere, except possibly a strip club.
"Hello, Candy," he said, conscious of Ellen's eyes narrowing suspiciously. "Ellen, I'd like to introduce Candy Valenzuela, our society columnist. Candy, this is my mother-in-law, Ellen Lane."
"You're Lois's mother?" Candy extended a slender, white hand, tipped with bright red nails. "How is Lois, these days? The last I saw of her, she looked like she was going to have those babies any minute!"
"You know my daughter?" Ellen asked. Obviously Candy's appearance had distracted her from Clark's introduction.
"Candy works in the office," Clark said. "You've read her column, Ellen. Candy writes the Town Talk column for the paper."
"Oh -- of course," Ellen said, taking the woman's hand as briefly as courtesy would allow.
"Was there something you needed, Candy?" Clark asked.
"Actually, yes. I was wondering if I could get a ride home from you this evening. My car is in the shop and I --" Her voice faltered. "I don't want to --" Abruptly, she turned her head, and he could swear that her complexion went a little paler under its layer of makeup. He frowned.
"What's the matter, Candy?"
"Oh -- nothing. Nothing at all. About that ride..."
"Not a problem. I have the Jeep, today. What time are you leaving?"
"At six," she said, surprising him. "I'm supposed to attend the cocktail party at the Governor's mansion this evening, and I'll need time to prepare."
"Oh, I see. I'll give Lois a call and tell her I'll be a little late."
"Thank you, Clark." Candy glanced briefly at the front of the shop and back to them. "Well -- I guess I'll see you back in the office."
When she had gone, he turned back to his mother-in-law. Ellen was watching the woman's retreating back, her eyes narrowed. "Who is she?" she asked.
"That's the Planet's society columnist, Candy Valenzuela," he repeated.
"And she works in your office?"
"Yes." What she was thinking was obvious. "Ask Lois about her, if you like."
"You're giving her a lift home. Where does she live?"
"I don't know," Clark said.
"But you're giving her a lift home?"
"It won't hurt me to do her a favor," Clark said. "That's all it is, Ellen."
She looked doubtful and then shrugged. "I guess so. I'm going to reserve my judgement, Clark. I know Lois loves you; I hope her faith is justified."
At six o'clock, Candy was waiting while Clark tidied his desk. The woman had slipped on a leopard-skin patterned jacket and had slung a matching bag over her shoulder. She smiled a little nervously when he joined her at the elevator.
"Ready?" he asked.
They rode the elevator to the Planet's lobby in silence, but Clark didn't fail to notice that her pulse rate had speeded up. He added that to the nervousness she had displayed in the coffee shop.
"What's the matter, Candy?" he asked. "Is something bothering you?"
"What makes you say that?" she asked.
"You're upset about something," he said, quietly. "Even I can see it."
"Nobody else noticed," she said. "You're right, though. I've got a stalker."
The elevator doors opened and they stepped out into the lobby. The Jeep was parked halfway down the block and Clark moved to walk between her and the street as they made their way to the vehicle. He opened the door for her and closed it after her before going around to take his place in the driver's seat.
"Where to?" he asked.
"112 Burlington Avenue," she said.
He started the engine and pulled out into traffic. The rush hour crush was beginning to wane, but there were still plenty of cars on the street. He concentrated on driving carefully for several minutes to get the Jeep off the main thoroughfare.
"If you don't mind, I'm going to take a few back streets," he said. "It won't be as crowded."
She nodded and watched in silence as he maneuvered the Jeep carefully through the slowly moving cars.
"A stalker," he said, finally. "What's he done?"
Candy leaned back in the seat. "Enough," she said. "It started after the Valentine Ball. I got what I thought was a fan letter. He said he'd seen me that night and hadn't been able to get me out of his mind. I was a little flattered, I suppose."
"But it didn't stay like that?"
"No." Candy shuddered. "There were more letters. Sometimes there were flowers. Only it started to change, slowly. He started to talk about us being together. I didn't think much about it...I mean, I hadn't even met him! But then, a few weeks ago, somebody broke into my apartment."
"Robbery attempt?" Clark asked.
"I thought so at first," Candy said. "But nothing was taken -- except some of my lingerie."
"I replaced my locks and told my landlord," Candy said. "The funny thing is, I didn't connect it. Then, last week I found a -- " She hesitated. "A videocamera. In my bedroom. I don't know how long it's been there. The police traced the wires to a transmitter, outside the building. He's been watching me for who knows how long. And then I got another letter. It was -- different. It called me a --" She broke off. "Well, it called me some names and told me that I'd betrayed him and that I was going to pay the price for 'spurning his love', I think the phrase was. I --" She stopped and seemed to gather herself. "This morning, I -- well, I must have been around you and Lois too long. I started up my car, and realized the brakes felt odd. I managed to get it stopped, but the mechanic I called said someone had cut the brake lines."
"I see." Clark said. "Did you call the police?"
"Sure. They took my car away to see if they could find any evidence in it, and told me to be careful. So, now I don't have a car, and some whacko is stalking me, and I haven't any idea who he is. All day I've had the feeling that somebody was watching me. Nerves, I guess."
"I see. And that's why you wanted a ride this evening."
She nodded. "I figured I was safe with you, Clark. If anybody's a straight arrow, it's you."
"It's nice to know somebody thinks so," Clark said, dryly. "Do you have an escort tonight?"
"Are you volunteering?" Candy asked.
"I'm kidding, Clark," she said. "I know you want to stay close to Lois, right now. I heard she was in the hospital a few days ago. Are the babies all right?"
"Good," she said. "And to answer your question, yes, I have an escort. I'll be okay, tonight."
"When do you get your car back?"
"Detective Zymack said it would be a couple of days, and after that, it has to go to the shop for repairs, so ... probably next week."
"How did you get to work this morning?"
"I got a cab," Candy said. "Why?"
"I'm thinking that somebody you know needs to drive you to work in the morning. Let me see what I can work out."
"You don't need to go to the trouble," Candy said. "I think I'm probably okay by daylight."
"Probably," he agreed. "Humor me, okay? Let me see if I can arrange for some friends to give you a lift for the next few days."
She smiled, wryly. "The last Boy Scout," she said. "Lois is a lucky woman. Thanks, Clark."
They arrived at Candy's apartment house a few moments later. Candy got out and raised her eyebrows as Clark also descended from the Jeep. "You don't have to --"
"It won't hurt for me to walk you to your door," he said. "Just to be safe."
Again she smiled, but he noticed that she didn't object.
Candy's apartment was on the fourth floor. As they waited for the elevator, Clark lowered his glasses and glanced around the area, scanning for anything unusual. The doors opened at last and a short man in a pair of battered jeans emerged. He nodded to Candy and glanced at Clark.
"Is this a friend of your, Ms. Valenzuela?"
"This is Mr. Kent. We work in the same office," Candy explained. "Clark, this is Mr. Bryant, who manages the apartment."
Clark smiled. "Nice to meet you."
"Likewise." Bryant smiled briefly. "You'd better be careful, Ms. Valenzuela, after this morning."
"That's why Mr. Kent drove me home," Candy explained. "Thanks, Mr. Bryant."
"If anything scares you, don't hesitate to call," the manager said. "There are a lot of weirdoes around, these days."
"Tell me about it." Candy caught the elevator doors and entered the car, and Clark followed.
The fourth floor of the apartment house was quiet. Candy led the way to her apartment with a brisk step, amazing for someone in spiked heels, Clark thought. He didn't know how women managed to walk in heels without spraining an ankle, but surmised that there had to be an art to it. They paused at the door and she fumbled for her keys. Clark unobtrusively lowered his glasses to check the room beyond the door. Everything seemed normal. He waited patiently until she had the door open and turned to him.
"Thanks, Clark. I appreciate the help."
"You're welcome," Clark said. "I'm going to phone a couple of friends. If they're willing to give you a ride in the morning, I'll let you know; all right?"
Candy nodded. "Leave a message on the machine, if I don't answer," she said. "I'll probably be out late."
"Right," he said. "Lock your door."
Candy closed the door and he heard the click as she fastened the bolt. Clark turned to retrace his steps to the elevator, frowning. The whole story Candy had told bothered him. It sounded as if his coworker might really be in danger.
He rounded the corner to the elevator just as the doors opened, and a man in a janitor's coverall emerged, towing a vacuum cleaner. He held the door politely for Clark.
"Thanks." Clark stepped into the car and punched the button for the first floor.
The man nodded absently and headed down the hallway, pushing his vacuum.
Ellen Lane sat in her car, watching as Clark drove away. Well, it looked as if he hadn't stayed long enough for anything to happen. That was encouraging, but she intended to keep an eye on this Candy female. Sam's first affair had been with the office receptionist, and if this sexpot worked in the Daily Planet's newsroom, that was a red flag, as far as she was concerned. Clark hadn't shown the slightest reaction to her outrageous clothing, either. Most normal men would have at least noticed what she was flagrantly showing off. Ellen strongly suspected that it had all been an act on his part. Still, she was forced to admit that Sam had made a good point the other night. She had never seen Clark look at any woman other than Lois. Could any man possibly be that faithful? Clark's behavior seemed almost too good to be true, except for his odd absences. That was the thing that had aroused her suspicions in the beginning.
Ellen started the engine and pulled out into traffic. She wouldn't mention her mission to Sam. He wouldn't approve of what she was doing, but Sam didn't give any credence to her suspicions. At 41, Clark was a remarkably good-looking man. He had the kind of good looks that grew more distinguished over time, and unless he colored his hair, which she doubted, he didn't have a grey hair on his head. Sam had begun to have a thin spot by the same age, but Clark's hair was as thick as it had been the day she met him, and he hadn't gained a pound or lost any of his impressive build since that day, as far as she could tell. He was certainly the kind of man that women noticed and he wouldn't be the first to sample what was being offered. She hoped that she would be proven wrong, but until she was sure one way or the other, she intended to watch her daughter's husband.
When the Jeep turned onto Hyperion Avenue, she turned off and headed toward home. Sam would be getting out of his lab, soon.
"A stalker!" Lois said.
"Yeah." Clark sat down on the sofa next to her. "I called Jim to see if he and Sandi could give her a ride in the morning. Sandi said they couldn't do it tomorrow, but they could the next day, so I'm going to pick her up in the morning, if you don't mind."
"Mother will have a fit if she finds out," Lois said. "She'll be sure that you're seeing Candy behind my back."
"I know, but --" Clark shrugged. "I'm not going to stop trying to help people just because it makes your mom suspicious. Candy was scared, even though she was trying not to show it. I could tell."
"Of course you could," Lois said. "I agree with you. You can pick her up tomorrow and Jim can do it on Friday."
"Jim's going to do a search and see if he can come up with the names of the guests who were at the Valentine Ball," Clark said.
"Good idea," Lois said. She ran a hand over her rounded abdomen with a sigh. "I'm afraid I can't be of much use right now."
"You've got a much more important job to do," Clark said. He took her hand and lifted it to his lips. "Nothing is more important to me than you and the babies, right now. Still, if you want to, you can do some research online, if Jim doesn't have the time." He put her hand back on her middle and rested his fingers on top of it. One of the babies kicked against their joined hands.
Lois rubbed the spot. "This one's going to be a football player, I think," she remarked. "Maybe all of them are. I'm going to be black and blue from the inside out by the time they're born." She shifted position. "I think Superman should keep an eye on Candy, too, Clark. This guy sounds like he means business."
"He sure does," Martha said.
"I called her a few minutes ago to tell her who'd be picking her up in the morning, and she answered the phone," Clark said, "so she's okay, so far. I think Superman will probably make an extra fly-by or two, this evening, as well."
"Not a bad idea," Lois said. "Candy may be irritating, but I don't want to see anything happen to her."
"Neither do I," Clark said. He hesitated, and decided to take the plunge. "On a related subject -- I wanted to get your take on something."
"Oh?" Lois said.
"Yes. I know we agreed that it wasn't necessary for your parents to know about my exact relationship with Superman, but the situation with your mother can't go on. What do you think about telling them the truth? It isn't as if they're going to run to the nearest tabloid with the story."
Lois gave a soft laugh. "I was thinking the same thing," she said. "As a matter of fact, I was going to bring it up this evening, if you hadn't."
Clark looked at his mother. "What do you think, Mom? After all, you and Dad are involved in this, too. If anyone found out the truth, you'd probably have tabloid reporters camped on your doorstep for the rest of your lives."
"If it happened, we could handle it," Martha said. "You and Lois would have to bear the brunt of it. I don't think it's likely though, do you?"
"No," Clark said. "But the more people who know, the more likely someone is to slip."
"I think it's a chance we're going to have to take," Martha said. "Until Ellen has the real explanation for why you disappear at inconvenient times, she's going to continue to think you're cheating on Lois. In a way, I can't blame her. She cares about Lois and the children, and it worries her."
"I know," Clark said. "I hope she doesn't get too angry when she finds out the truth."
"If she does, she'll recover," Lois said. "Besides, it's better than the alternative."
"I guess it is, at that," Clark agreed. "I think we need to talk to Dad, and then, if he agrees ..."
"I'll call him," Martha said.
"Better make the call from the bedroom," Clark said. He glanced toward the stairs. "Little pitchers and all that."
Martha laughed and nodded. "Be right back."
"And, in the meantime," Clark said, "I'll make dinner."
Morning in the Kent household was its usual controlled chaos, Lois thought.
Clark carefully set her on the sofa and made sure the TV remote control, the computer keyboard and mouse, and the phone were near at hand. "Is that all right?"
"It's fine," Lois said. "I'll give Mother a call in a little while and invite her and Dad over after dinner, tonight."
"Okay." Clark agreed. "Is it okay for me to be a little nervous?"
"Of course," Lois said. "This is a pretty big deal." She adjusted her position on the sofa and turned her head. "Come on, guys! You're going to be late for school!"
"Coming, Mom!" CJ's voice called, and a moment later the three older Kent children came through the kitchen doors, followed by Jimmy, still in his pajamas.
"Jimmy, go wash your face!" Lois commanded. "You have grape jelly in your eyebrows. Jonny, I told you the ding dongs were for afternoon snacks, not breakfast. Go with Jimmy and wash off the chocolate mustache."
Her second son looked guilty. "Sorry, Mommy. Come on, Jimmy."
The two boys headed for the downstairs bathroom.
"I'll bet," Lois said, to their retreating backs. "Well, at least he'll get a reasonably healthy lunch at school."
"I'll be back in a minute," CJ said. "I left my science project on my desk." He dashed up the stairs, moving a little faster than normal human speed.
Martha passed him on the way down the stairs. "Careful there, CJ."
He was gone before she finished speaking and an instant later reappeared at the head of the stairs with a three ringed binder in his hands. "I'm ready. Wyatt's bringing the model."
"Okay; head for the Jeep," Clark said. He bent to give Lois a kiss. "I need to hurry a little bit, guys. I'm giving Ms. Valenzuela a lift to work this morning, while her car is out of service."
"She's the one the stalker is after, huh?" Marta said. "I heard you and Mom talking about it last night."
Jimmy stepped out of the bathroom, the entire front of his pajama shirt dripping wet. "What's a stalker?" he wanted to know.
"A bad man," Jonny informed his younger sibling.
"A very bad man," Martha told them. "Hurry up, now."
Jonny hurried over to Lois to give her a goodbye hug and the three older children allowed their father to shepherd them out the door. As it closed behind them, Lois reached for the phone. "I'll give Mother that call, now."
Martha nodded. "While you're doing that, Jimmy and I will go upstairs and get him something a little more suited for day wear."
Lois nodded and dialed the number of her mother's cell phone. Patiently, she waited while the phone rang. On the third ring there was a chime and a recorded voice announced that Ms. Lane was not available and to leave a message. Lois hung up. She would wait an hour and call back. This was one time she wanted to speak personally to her mother.
"Hi, Candy," Clark said, as the society columnist settled into the seat of the Cherokee. "Any sign of your 'friend'?"
She shook her head. "No. At least, I don't think so. I came in at about one-thirty last night -- early for me. Mr. Bryant said he'd been keeping an eye on my place and he hadn't seen anyone, and it didn't look to me as if anyone had been there."
"Jim Olsen is trying to get hold of a list of the attendees at the Valentine Ball," he said. "I'm not sure it would still be around, though. We thought we might take a stab at identifying this guy."
Candy smiled reluctantly. "You don't need to waste your time on it, Clark. I'm sure you and Jim have more important things to do."
"No," Clark said. "If you're scared, and feel threatened, then that's enough for me. You're a society columnist. You wouldn't still have that list, would you?"
"It would be in that issue of the paper," she said. "I'll check when we get to the office. Still, it wouldn't give the names of the catering staff or the orchestra, or anything."
"There are ways to find out about those," Clark said. "Leave it to Jim and me, okay?"
"Okay." Candy pulled her light jacket more firmly around her shoulders.
"Are you cold?" he asked. "I can turn on the heater, if you'd like."
"No. I guess --" She hesitated. "I guess I just feel sort of -- well -- vulnerable, I guess is the word I'm looking for. Like somebody's out there watching every move I make. It's silly. Who would be watching me in a moving car? It's just the situation, I suppose."
"Probably," Clark agreed. "Still, it's understandable. I don't blame you a bit."
Candy fell silent for several minutes, but Clark noticed that she hadn't released the edges of the jacket.
"How did the Governor's party go last night?" he asked.
"Not bad. Most of his party's political bigwigs who live in the area were there. The speeches were kind of boring after the tenth one, though. There are only so many ways you can promise pie in the sky to the loyal flock."
He laughed. "That's for sure. Was Bill Henderson around?"
Candy shook her head. "No, he sent his regrets. Apparently, his wife has the flu and so does one of his daughters. He stayed home to help her."
"That's Henderson," Clark said. "He's a good guy. I'm going to try to get hold of him this morning. I know he isn't a cop anymore, but he still has friends in the police department."
Candy glanced at him with a little smile. "You're going to a lot of trouble for me, Clark. You know, when I first came to work at the Planet, three years ago, I'd heard about your reputation for trying to help people. I didn't think anybody could be that much of a crusader. I apologize for thinking it was a smokescreen. Cat was right."
He glanced at her. "Cat? Do you mean Cat Grant? I didn't realize you knew her."
"Sure." Candy nodded. "She and I were roommates and best friends in college and we've kept in contact ever since." The society columnist grinned slightly. "She talked about you. You know she's the managing editor for New Western Fashion, these days, don't you? She helped me come up with my image. You don't think I grew up dressing like this, do you?" She waved a hand at the tight, short dress she wore that revealed her long, elegant legs.
"Well," he said, "it didn't occur to me, actually. It wasn't any of my business."
"And besides, you and Lois are happily married, and you aren't interested in anyone else," Candy said, wryly. "Don't think it isn't obvious to every woman in the office. Anyway, before Cat, I used to be the plainest girl on campus. I'm not particularly pretty, but Cat showed me how to make the most of what was available."
"Not pretty?" Clark said, surprised. "Where on earth did you get that idea? You're a very attractive woman."
She gave a wry grin. "I can look in the mirror, Clark, but that's exactly what I'm talking about. Cat showed me how to emphasize my good points and minimize the ones that weren't so good. Besides, the image helps me in my job. I'm thinking about changing the way I dress, though. This stalker thing has made me wonder."
Clark shook his head. "I doubt it had much to do with the situation, Candy. I'd say this guy has a screw loose. I suspect he'd have gone after you, no matter how you dressed." He stopped. "You know, that's an idea."
"It's possible this isn't the first time he's done something like this. I'm going to do some research into previous cases like this one. It might give us some clues."
"You think so?" Candy said.
"It's a definite possibility." Clark turned the Cherokee into the entrance to the Planet's basement parking lot. "I guess I don't have to caution you about not walking around in dark alleys. I talked to Superman, and he's promised to try to keep an eye out for you, too, so if you run into trouble, yell for him, okay?"
"I will," Candy said. "Thanks, Clark. I guess you don't really know who your friends are until you need them."
Ellen Lane watched as Clark pulled the Kent Jeep up to the curb in front of the apartment building, a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. Her worst fears seemed to be in the process of being confirmed. Clark had dropped the woman off the evening before and it seemed as if he'd been telling the truth; that he was simply giving a co-worker a ride home. But if that was true, why should he come back in the morning?
She waited, fully expecting him to enter the apartment house, but contrary to her expectations, he simply waited with the engine running. A man had set up a flower stand on the sidewalk, just far enough from the entrance to be legal; Ellen had noticed him the night before. Clusters of pink carnations and tasteful, little bouquets of mixed flowers sat in containers of water behind the stand. Big, single red roses, each in its own container, occupied the place of honor near the front, next to little bunches of violets. The flowers were beautiful, but Ellen barely glanced at the display as she sat, tapping her fingers on the steering wheel of the Taurus.
No more than two minutes passed, and the woman in question emerged from the building, skirted the stand and walked to the Cherokee. Ellen frowned, a little puzzled, as the society columnist opened the door and climbed in. This wasn't what she had expected, but there was the plain fact that Clark appeared to be giving this woman more attention than any married man should.
The Cherokee pulled away from the curb. She followed, thinking. So far she had plenty of suspicion, but no definitive proof of anything. She was going to have to continue trailing him for a while longer until he gave her something solid to take back to Lois.
Clark drove straight to the Daily Planet and into the building's underground lot. Ellen located a nearby lot, parked her car, and walked back toward the newspaper offices. She needed to make sure that Clark had gone to his office, but she couldn't let him know she was watching him. What was the woman's name? Candy something; that was it.
She had inadvertently left her cellular phone in the charger, this morning, but there was a pay phone not far from the Daily Planet. She would give this "Candy" a call.
Clark stood back to let Candy exit the elevator first and followed her out.
Perry White was standing beside the Sports desk, speaking to a slender man whom he recognized as Detective Wolff of the Metro PD. As he followed the columnist down the ramp to the newsroom floor, Perry nodded in his direction and said something to the detective. The man turned.
"Candy! Clark!" Their editor's voice rose above the buzz of conversation that filled the room. "Come into my office a minute."
"Wonder if they've found out anything," he remarked to her as they threaded their way through the maze of desks toward their boss's office.
"I hope so," Candy said.
Perry had reached his office before they did and held the door for Candy. When the door closed behind them, Wolff took a seat on the battered couch that stood against one wall of the office and indicated that they should sit.
"What's going on?" Clark asked.
"I know you gave Ms. Valenzuela a ride home last night, Clark," Wolff said. "Olsen said you were going to give her a lift this morning, too?"
"Yes," Clark said. "What's going on?"
"Zymack put me in charge of this stalker thing of Ms. Valenzuela's," Wolff told them. "We're not sure this is connected, but it may very well be. I understand you went to the thing at the Governor's last night, Ms. Valenzuela. You had a date?"
"Yes," Candy said. "I went with Daryl Johnson; he's one of the Assistant Governor's staff."
"Was," Wolff said. "He was found this morning in his car, out on Route 7. He'd been shot. Exactly when did you see him last, Ms. Valenzuela?"
The words fell into complete silence and Clark saw Candy's face go paler under her makeup. Her eyes widened.
"Oh, my god," she whispered. "He's *dead*?"
"I'm afraid so," Wolff said. "What time did you last see him?"
"He took me home a little before one-thirty last night," Candy said.
"And you didn't see him again?" Wolff asked. Clark could see that he was watching her closely.
"No." Candy shook her head. "He walked me to my door. I'd told him about the stalker, and he said he'd see me safely to my place."
"Did you meet anyone who can confirm that?" Wolff asked.
"We met Mr. Bryant on the fourth floor. He's the apartment manager," Candy explained. "He'd been checking my floor and keeping a general eye out for anyone who didn't belong there. Anyway, I said good night at the door and went in. I didn't see Daryl again."
"How about you, Kent?" Wolff asked. "What did you do after you left here, yesterday?"
"I dropped off Ms. Valenzuela and went home," Clark said. "I probably got there around seven."
"Anybody see you?"
"I suppose a lot of people did," he said. "Whether they'd remember is another question, but my wife was at home -- Lois Lane. I imagine you remember her. So were my four children and my mother."
"Yes," Wolff said, dryly. "Most of the Metro Police Department would recognize her name."
"Anyway," Clark said, "why would I have anything to do with it? All I did was give Ms. Valenzuela a ride home."
"Just following procedure," Wolff said. "I take it you were at home all night?"
"I can safely say," Clark said, "that I didn't set foot outside the house again until this morning, when I took the kids to school. Detective, this is beginning to sound pretty serious. Do you have any idea why Johnson was killed?"
Wolff hitched his shoulders. "Possibly because he was Ms. Valenzuela's date last night. This guy, whoever he is, seems to be possessive to say the least -- and obviously isn't above violence, if he's the one who cut her brake line. We'll investigate all the other possibilities, of course, but that seems to be the most likely one."
"You think Daryl died because he was my date last night?" Candy put her face in her hands. "Oh, my god..."
"Easy, honey," Perry said. He put a hand on her shoulder.
For an instant, Clark saw a flash of sympathy cross the detective's face, and then it was a professionally blank mask again. "Ms. Valenzuela, until we find some kind of clue about this guy, there isn't much we can do. We haven't got the manpower to assign you a personal bodyguard. The only thing I can do is advise you to be extremely careful in the near future. If your stalker is behind Johnson's death, then he's willing to kill. The next person he could go after is you."
The phone rang several times. Just as Ellen was about to hang up, someone answered, and a male voice replied. "Daily Planet. Ms. Valenzuela's desk."
So, the woman wasn't at her desk. Ellen chalked that one up in the "Suspicious" column. "I'm sorry, is Candy available?"
"She's in a conference at the moment," the voice answered. "Can I take a message?"
"Um -- no, I'll call back later." Ellen hung up. Well, that hadn't told her much. "In a conference" could mean anything.
Well, the only way to be sure was to go see for herself. There was never any problem with her going into the Daily Planet building. The security people knew her, and if anyone else she knew spotted her, she could always claim she'd come to pick up something for her daughter.
When she arrived in the Daily Planet newsroom, the first thing she observed was that the place seemed to be in chaos. She'd never been in Lois's place of work this early in the morning before so she wasn't sure if this was normal or if something unusual had happened. Jim Olsen was talking to a younger man and waving a videocamera in a way that she considered almost dangerous. A young woman with bright red hair was crossing the Pit with a stack of printouts higher than her head. Clark Kent's desk was empty, a point that caught her attention at once. She added that to the information that "Candy" was in a conference. This could be the evidence that she was seeking.
No, there was Clark, emerging from Perry White's office, accompanied by the editor, himself, Candy and a tall, slender man who somehow looked as if he didn't quite belong in the newsroom. Ellen moved back against the wall next to the elevator and watched the scene with close attention.
Clark said something to Candy and then turned to cross the room to the red haired girl, who had deposited her printouts on somebody's desk. She must be the office gofer, Ellen surmised, having become familiar with the position from her acquaintance with Jim Olsen. He engaged her in conversation for several minutes, and then crossed the Pit to his desk.
The dark man who had accompanied Clark and the others from Perry's office was making his way to the elevator. He rang for the car and while he stood waiting, he glanced at her. He frowned.
"You aren't an employee here, are you?"
"No." Ellen's reply was short. Strange men accosting her out of the blue weren't high on her list of priorities.
The man's expression of interest sharpened. "Is there something you need? You seem to be lost."
"I'm here to pick up something for my daughter," Ellen said, bringing out her prepared excuse.
"And who is your daughter?" the man asked.
"What business is that of yours?" she asked.
He reached into an inner pocket. "Detective Wolff, Metropolis Police Department," he said.
Ellen's heart jumped and began to thump. "What are you doing here?" she blurted.
The man's eyebrows rose. "Murder investigation," he said. "Who is your daughter? And may I see some identification, please?"
"Murder!" Ellen said.
"Yes, ma'am. May I see your identification?"
Trapped, Ellen opened her purse and located her wallet. "I'm Ellen Lane," she said, fishing for her driver's license. "My daughter is Lois Lane."
The detective examined the little card. "All right, Ms. Lane. Sorry for the inconvenience."
"That's ... all right. Who was murdered? What does it have to do with the Daily Planet?"
"I expect you can read about it in the paper, ma'am," Wolff said. "Excuse me." He rang for the elevator again and the doors opened almost immediately.
Ellen looked after him for several seconds, feeling stunned. It seemed as if the "meeting" Clark and this Candy woman had been involved in was genuine, after all. Maybe whatever was going on wasn't what she had thought it was. On the other hand, what was a society columnist doing involved in a murder investigation -- or Clark, for that matter? Of course, her son-in-law was an investigative journalist, so maybe that wasn't so far-fetched, but the police were hardly going to be voluntarily involving a reporter unless there was a more direct connection.
She had been right to suspend judgement, she thought, moving slowly toward the ramp. Still, even if Clark was investigating a murder, it didn't mean he was blameless otherwise. It simply meant that she had to find out more.
She glanced back at Clark, who, it appeared, hadn't noticed the meeting by the elevator. He was reading something on his computer screen, and as she watched, he reached for his desk phone.
And suddenly, she found her attention riveted.
Clark's head came up in a way she found very familiar. He got to his feet with an impression of restrained haste and made a direct line toward the short flight of stairs that led to the elevator.
Ellen stood perfectly still, hoping he wouldn't notice her. With single-minded attention, Clark went up the steps, one hand groping for his tie in a familiar gesture. Never glancing at her, he disappeared through the door to the stairs. The door swung shut behind him.
So, he did it at work, too? Ellen stood looking at the door for several seconds, frowning slightly. She'd focussed on his unexplained absences, but it had never occurred to her before that the particular behavior she had just witnessed was pretty strange, whatever the reason. After a moment, she started down the ramp again, not certain what she intended to do, but if she was to cover her tracks, in case that Detective Wolff mentioned her presence, she needed to establish the fact that she had been there for a legitimate reason. It was just as well that Clark had left, she thought. There was a mystery here that needed an explanation and she didn't want to face him just yet. Something just didn't add up with her working hypothesis.
A sonic boom made the windows quiver slightly. Superman, she thought. The Man of Steel must be in a hurry to get somewhere.
She was halfway down the ramp when the monitors came on. Again, she stopped to watch.
It was a hostage situation, she saw, with members of the Metro SWAT Team on the scene. A reporter for LNN was speaking excitedly into a camera, and in the background, a loudspeaker could be heard.
The camera shifted suddenly, and she saw Superman coming in for a landing. Several reporters converged on him, but he strode forward, forcing the eager news hawks to give way as he made his way to the man who was apparently directing operations.
"Ellen!" Jim Olsen's voice almost made her jump out of her skin. "Is there something we can do for you? Lois is all right, isn't she?" The Planet's senior photojournalist must have approached while she was watching the drama being played out on the monitors, she realized, because he was standing barely three feet away. Gathering her scattered wits, she pasted a smile on her lips.
"Hello, Jim. Yes, Lois is fine. I just came by to pick up some things for her."
Jim's eyebrows went up. "Great timing. I'd just finished assembling that stuff she asked me for, day before yesterday. If you'll wait, I'll get it for you."
"Of course. In the meantime, I'll just get the ... thing out of her desk."
"Sure." Jim followed her down the ramp and headed for his desk.
Ellen crossed the Pit to Lois's desk, acutely aware of the society columnist at work a short distance away. Reaching her daughter's workstation, she opened the bottom, side drawer.
A stack of folders met her eyes, and Ellen riffled through them, looking for one that wouldn't be missed if Clark were to check the drawer. She had every intention of returning it later, when her point was either proven or disproven. Admittedly, what she was doing wasn't exactly honest, but after all, Lois, herself, had bent the law more than once in her pursuit of the truth. It wasn't as if she intended to destroy the information, or anything. Besides, it was for her daughter's own good.
The second-from-the-bottom folder looked like a good bet. She appropriated it and stood up, closing the drawer, and turned to see Jim Olsen approaching, a large envelope in his hand.
"Here you go," he said. "How's Lois doing, anyway? Any more contractions?"
Ellen shook her head, hoping she didn't look too nervous. "She was fine, when I saw her last. I'd better get this back to her, though. You know Lois. She gets bored if she isn't working on something."
He laughed. "They don't call her Mad Dog Lane for nothing. Tell her I'll have that list of employees from the Valentine's Ball ready by this evening."
Ellen managed to smile at him, although the expression seemed stiff and unnatural. "I will."
A glance at the monitors showed that the hostage crisis had been resolved. The attention of the Planet employees had returned to their jobs. Ellen walked briskly toward the stairs leading to the upper level. She'd pushed her luck here about as far as she dared. As it was, she was going to have some explaining to do to Lois later. She only hoped her daughter wasn't too angry with her. Still, it would be better to know the truth now, rather than have it sprung on her later.
As she approached the elevator, the door to the stairs opened and Clark stepped out.
"Ellen!" he said. "What brings you here?"
For a second, her vocal cords simply refused to work. As she groped for a reply, Clark's face took on an expression of concern. "Are you all right, Ellen?"
Now what was she going to do? If she didn't speak up, he'd know something wasn't right. "Uh, I'm fine," she managed. "I just came by to pick up some papers for Lois."
"Oh." He punched the elevator button for her. "Well, tell her I'll be home in plenty of time."
"Of course," she said, not even trying to decipher his meaning. "I'll see you later, Clark."
"Until this evening, then," he said. The elevator door opened as he spoke, and Ellen boarded.
She hastily punched the indicator button and let out her breath as the door closed. How Lois managed this kind of thing in the performance of her job, she had no idea. It left her a nervous wreck. Her heart was pounding like a drum, and she felt shaky all over -- not to mention the faint sense of guilt that tugged at her; the knowledge that what she was doing was dishonest, to say the least. It was becoming obvious to her that she wasn't cut out for a life of crime.
The elevator passed the first floor. Startled, she saw that, in her flustered state at the unexpected encounter, she had pushed, not the indicator for the lobby, but the one for the basement garage of the Planet. Well, it wasn't that big a deal. When the car stopped, she would simply punch the button for the correct floor.
The elevator braked to a stop and the doors opened with a sigh of air. She looked out at the dimly lighted garage, seeing the Kent Jeep parked perhaps a dozen feet away, almost directly opposite the elevator. At the sound of the bell, a man, kneeling beside the front wheel, looked up in surprise, and Ellen saw a knife protruding from his fist. With almost photographic clarity, she took in the scene, sharp and distinct. Three of the tires of the Cherokee had been slashed to ribbons.
The man came to his feet and seemed to rush toward her. Ellen jabbed the button for the lobby.
There was a few seconds' delay, and, with a sigh of compressed air the door began to close. At the same instant, the oncoming man thrust out a hand to catch the closing door, and Ellen moved on instinct, striking at the hand with her handbag.
The man jerked backwards and the door shut. There was a split second's pause, and the elevator began to move upward. It took only a few seconds until the car braked to a stop a second time and the door opened again, revealing the lobby of the Daily Planet and half a dozen people waiting to enter. She pushed blindly past them, ignoring the irritated murmurs of the crowd. Whatever had almost happened downstairs, she didn't want to think about it.
She made her way back to her car almost in a trance. When she reached the Taurus, she leaned against the door and took several deep breaths to try to calm her nerves. The blood was still pounding in her ears, and she hated to think what her blood pressure must be right now.
She had surprised a vandal, but the man hadn't been satisfied with simply running away. His intentions toward Ellen had been clear.
With a shaking hand, she reached into her handbag for her keys. After several moments of searching, she set the bag on the hood of her car and began to hunt in growing alarm.
The keys were gone. She must have dropped them somewhere.
For a moment, she couldn't believe her bad luck. That key ring had been a gift from Sam, and on it she had her penthouse key, the key to the Lane condominium and the key to Lois's and Lucy's houses as well as the key to the Taurus.
For an irrational moment, she had the urge to kick the tire of her car. Then she took a deep breath and forced herself to calm down. There was a spare key in the car. All she had to do was to call the auto club to unlock the door for her. And, it wasn't the end of the world. The ring had a tag with her name and phone number engraved in it. Hopefully, someone at the Planet would find it and turn it in to Lost and Found. She had a good chance of getting it back. The first thing to do was to go back to the Daily Planet and report the loss of her keys to Security. At the same time, she would report the man in the parking lot. If she'd been less shaken, she'd have done it already.
Turning, she started back toward the Daily Planet for the second time that day.
Clark was writing up his account of the hostage situation when his desk phone rang. He picked it up. "Clark Kent."
"Mr. Kent? This is Phil Thomet, from Security," a male voice said. "Do you own a Jeep Cherokee, with vanity plates reading LL?"
"Yes," Clark said. "Is something wrong?"
"The vehicle has apparently been vandalized," the man said. "A witness reported seeing a man slashing the tires."
"Vandalized!" Clark said. Several persons turned to look at him. He lowered his voice. "What happened?"
"Why don't you check out the damage and then come to the Security Office," Thomet said. "We'll need you to fill out a report. One of our people will be waiting for you in the garage."
"I'll be there in five minutes," Clark said. He hung up.
"What happened?" Jim Olsen was standing beside his desk when he stood up.
"Security says the Jeep's tires were slashed," Clark said. "They said a witness reported it. If Lois finds out, she'll have a fit. I'm going to go look at the damage."
"I'll go with you," Jim said. "Let me grab my camera."
Clark cast him a skeptical look. "This wouldn't be for a story, or something, would it?"
"Clark!" Jim looked hurt. "Of course not! I figure you might need it for the insurance claim."
"Oh. Sorry. I was remembering Lois, the time my apartment got robbed."
Jimmy snorted. "I'm not up for a Meriweather. Maybe I should do a series on the increasing vandalism in Metropolis ..."
Clark couldn't help grinning. "Come on, let's go see what happened."
"No, Lois, I haven't seen her since this morning," Sam Lane said. "She said something about having an appointment."
"I can't get her on her phone," Lois said. "All I get is her voice mail."
"Her phone must be turned off," her father said.
"Well, I wanted to invite you and Mother over about seven-thirty," Lois said. "Clark and I had something we wanted to discuss with you."
"Is there a problem?" Sam asked.
"No -- well, yes, actually," Lois said. "Mother's thing about Clark."
"Oh. She's still --"
"She still thinks he's cheating on me," Lois said.
"I'm afraid so," Sam said. "For what it's worth, I know she's wrong, Princess. Clark's a good man."
"He's the best man I could ever have found, Daddy. I was luckier than I deserved."
"I think Clark was the lucky one," Sam said. "Your mother's just worried about you. She doesn't understand."
"And you do?" Lois asked.
"Yes," Sam said. "I think I do. When I get home, I'll tell her you invited us over. All right?"
"Thanks, Dad." Lois's voice sounded a little worried. "We have a lot to explain to both of you."
When she had hung up, Sam set the receiver down with care. He frowned at the inoffensive telephone for nearly a full minute and then straightened up. Whatever Lois and Clark wanted to tell them, it sounded urgent. For a moment, he wondered if it had anything to do with the deductions he had made the other night and then dismissed the thought. If they hadn't said anything in nearly twelve years, it wasn't likely they were going to now. They had no idea, after all, that he had finally added up the evidence.
Still, it must be fairly important. Ellen's suspicions of Clark couldn't be good for their family.
For the first time, he wondered about Ellen's early-morning appointment. Whatever it was, it must have been occupying her mind almost to the exclusion of everything else if she forgot to turn on her phone -- unless she had deliberately left it off.
"John!" he called, suddenly.
John Trenton stuck his head into the room. "Yeah, Sam?"
"I have to go out. Is there anything you need for me to pick up?"
The other doctor appeared to think. "How about a ham sandwich and a soda?"
"I'll stop by the deli and get it before I come back," Sam said. "I'll be back in an hour or so -- or I'll call if my plans change."
"Right." Trenton disappeared again. Sam removed his lab coat and headed for the door.
"Somebody slashed your tires?" Candy said.
"I'm afraid so," Clark said.
"You don't suppose it had anything to do with --"
Clark hesitated. "Well -- I doubt it, but Wolff wants to check it out, just in case, after what happened to --" He broke off. "Anyway, we're going to have to find you another ride home, tonight. Jim can't, this evening, but he and Sandi will be by to pick you up in the morning."
"I'll take the bus," Candy said. "Would you think I'm too much of a wimp if I asked you to walk me to the bus stop?"
"Not at all," Clark said. "I'll phone Lois and tell her what's going on so she won't expect me right away."
"Tell her thanks for me," Candy said. "She's being very understanding about the whole thing. I appreciate it."
"Lois has been stalked, too," Clark said. "She knows what it feels like." He glanced at his watch. "I have to meet a source for the investigation Lois and I are working on, and since I don't have a car, I'd better leave now." He smiled. "Don't worry, Candy, Jim and I will get this thing figured out, unless the police do it first."
Candy nodded. "I can't thank any of you enough," she said. "I guess I didn't expect anybody to worry about me."
Clark frowned. "Candy, you're our friend, even if we haven't got to know you as well as we should. We aren't just going to stand by while you're in trouble and ignore it."
The elevator opened as she spoke and a delivery boy carrying a large vase of flowers stepped out. Candy froze. "Oh, my god."
"What's the matter?"
"Those are the same as the last flowers *he* sent me," she said.
"Maybe they're not for you," Clark suggested.
"Want to bet?" she said.
The delivery boy crossed the room to Candy's desk and set the vase carefully next to her computer. Clark moved quickly to intercept him before he reached the elevator on his return trip. "Excuse me. Did you see the man who ordered those flowers?"
The delivery boy shook his head. "No, sir."
"Which flower shop is it?"
"Myrtle's Florist and Hardware," he said.
"'Hardware'?" Clark said, slightly incredulous.
"Yes, sir. It's new."
"Oh. Okay, thanks." Clark let him go and returned to Candy, who was checking the flowers. "Is there a card?"
She nodded, holding it out to him.
"'I apologize for our disagreement'," he read. "'I hope our next meeting will be happier and look forward to our being together'. What disagreement and meeting?"
"I have no idea," Candy said. "I haven't met him, as far as I know. If I had, he'd be in jail."
"Maybe you've met him and didn't know it," Clark said.
"I guess," Candy said.
"Have you argued with anybody that you can think of?"
She shook her head. "Maybe he's talking about my so-called betrayal, when I found his camera and reported it."
"Maybe," Clark said. "It sure doesn't say much about his mental stability, though. Call Wolff and let him know about the flowers and note. And show it to Jim. I'll be back from my meeting as soon as I can." He paused. "If you have to go somewhere outside the office, at least take a photographer or somebody with you. I have kind of a bad feeling about this."
Candy shivered. "Isn't there any way to stop this person?"
"Just be very careful," Clark said. "Don't take any chances. I know somebody who might be able to give us some information on this guy. I'm going to see him after I meet my source. He always seems to know everything, so maybe he can help us."
After stepping into the stairwell, Clark made a quick departure through the roof exit. He had a meeting in the park with one of the staffers of Councilman Murray for the series Lois was working on, and since the Jeep was currently out of service, it looked like Superman Express was going to be his mode of transportation for the rest of the day.
The meeting took no more than fifteen minutes. Clark tucked the recorder away and thanked the woman. "I appreciate this, Ms. Underwood."
"My name won't be mentioned, will it?" she asked, anxiously. "I just wanted to be sure that people get the whole story."
"You have my word," Clark said.
"Thank you," she said. "Councilman Murray doesn't have many friends, right now."
"This should give people something to think about," Clark assured her. He glanced at his watch. "I have another meeting in a few minutes. Don't worry. I'll be careful to leave out any possible identifying information."
He waited until she had vanished around a turn in the sidewalk and then ducked quickly out of sight among a stand of trees. An instant later, Superman was on his way toward the section of Metropolis known as Little Italy.
He landed in an alley and a few seconds later, Clark Kent strolled into Figaro's Deli for the takeout order he had phoned in some forty-five minutes earlier. The transaction completed, he headed back towards Centennial Park.
Bobby Bigmouth was waiting on the park bench nearest the fountain when he arrived. Clark handed him the bag. "Here you go, Bobby. What do you have for me?"
The snitch opened the bag and inhaled rapturously. "Y'know, Clark, you bring better food than any other reporter in the city," he said. "You're having problems with a stalker, right?"
"Right. He's after one of my co-workers."
"Candy Valenzuela, your society columnist," Bobby said. "I've heard about it."
Clark had learned not to even wonder where Bobby came by his information. "Can you give me a lead?"
"Maybe. Check out the name Tyla Richards. And before that, Rebecca Bell. And you might look for some similar cases in Cincinnati, about five years ago."
"Thanks," Clark said.
"Oh, yeah. And watch your step. This guy doesn't like competition." Bobby reached into the bag and removed the boxed Italian herbed chicken. "This is great! I *love* this stuff!"
Ellen Lane sat in the Taurus, parked across the street from the Daily Planet. If Clark didn't have the Jeep, she assumed that he wouldn't be driving that woman home again today, but if he needed to go somewhere, he'd either have to walk or call a cab. If, by chance there was another female out there, somewhere, she was going to follow him and find out.
The little digital camera that Lucy had given her for her birthday rested on the front passenger seat. She was going to need pretty solid evidence, or Lois would never believe her. The camera filled the bill perfectly.
She still had no concrete evidence of any infidelity, but it had only been a few hours, and finding the proof she needed might take some time. After all, didn't private detectives trail people around for days and sometimes weeks to get evidence on them? She knew that with Lois, her investigations sometimes lasted for what seemed like forever and often led her into trouble. Ellen shuddered, but reassured herself that she was probably safe. If that vandal was still around and saw her, the fact that she was in public should deter him from anything of a violent nature, she thought. She should be fine where she was.
Overhead, she caught a flash of blue and red. Superman, she thought. It seemed that the tabloids were right in their assertion that he was often seen in the vicinity of the Daily Planet. Of course, their implication that he came by to see Lois Lane was nonsense. Lois wasn't even there right now, and she had no interest in the Man of Steel any longer, other than as a family friend. Superman had denied the rumors of an illicit affair long ago, and the stories those rags tried to spread ought to lay them open to a slander suit. Lois and Clark shrugged them off. That was another thing that made her wonder about Clark's fidelity. It didn't seem to matter to him that the National Whisper was constantly making allegations about his wife and Superman. He and Lois simply laughed at the stories and went about their business.
On the other hand, that was probably the only way to handle the tabloids and their insinuations. Suing them was something only the wealthy could afford to do and Lois and Clark weren't wealthy. Certainly, no one seemed to give the rumor-mongers much credence, in any case. Clark actually collected the things and had a big scrapbook with years of outrageous stories about the two of them and Superman. Maybe he had a point, she thought. If he and Lois made a fuss about the stories, people might pay more attention.
She checked her watch. She had been sitting here for a couple of hours now, and had nothing to show for it. Maybe she should go about this another way.
The revolving doors of the Daily Planet went into motion, and *That Woman*, Candy Whatever-Her-Name-Was, came out, accompanied by another reporter. Ellen picked up her camera and snapped a picture, just for the record. Whoever the man was, he wasn't Clark. They flagged down a taxi and drove away. Ellen was about to set the camera back on the seat when motion caught her eye.
Clark Kent, straightening his tie, emerged from an alley a couple of buildings down from his place of work and strode in a businesslike way to the Daily Planet building.
Ellen raised her camera and snapped a picture, then a second one, as a man in the uniform of a security guard passed him, ruining the first shot at the last second. As she watched, her son-in-law entered the building and disappeared.
Ellen slowly put the camera down on the seat. It seemed as if she had somehow missed Clark when he left the Planet. Where had he been?
Well, she told herself, it wasn't possible to keep him completely under her eye. Probably, he had just been out doing his job. But why had he been in the alley?
After a moment's thought, she stepped out of the car and crossed the street to the alley.
It was just an alley, she thought, looking around in growing disappointment. It was as she turned to retrace her steps to the Taurus, that it hit her.
The far end of the alley had been blocked off by a high, wooden fence. The only way in or out was the way she had come.
So how had Clark gotten in there without her seeing him? And why?
"You know," Lois said, "this is getting old, really fast."
"What is?" Martha set the tray of sandwiches down on the side table within Lois's reach.
"This lying flat thing," Lois said. "I've got *weeks* to go and I can't *do* anything but lie here. Jim said he was going to send that stuff on the Murray bribery scandal, but I haven't heard from him. I'm going crazy just watching soap operas."
"I know what you mean," Martha agreed. "I just can't stir up a lot of enthusiasm for any of them, and I understand why you won't let Jimmy watch. Everybody's cheating on everybody else. I never let Clark see things like that while he was growing up."
"Well, I'm afraid pink dinosaurs don't do a lot for me, either," Lois said. "I know Jimmy loves the show, but you can only take so much."
"Maybe I could go down to the drugstore and buy you some books, or something," Martha suggested. "A good, trashy novel would keep your attention and Jimmy wouldn't know what was in it."
"You read them, too?" Lois asked.
"Sure. Jonathan thinks I'm wasting my time, but --"
The phone rang. Lois reached for it and nearly upset her glass of milk. Martha grabbed the glass and moved it out of the way while Lois wrestled the receiver to her ear. "Hello?"
"What's the matter?" Clark's voice asked.
"Huh? Oh, nothing. I almost spilled a glass of milk. What's up?"
"Well, Jim isn't in the office, so I wondered if you'd like to do some research in connection with this stalker thing."
"I need to find out about a couple of names that Bobby gave me. Rebecca Bell and Tyla Richards. And, he said to check out Cincinnati for similar cases, about five years ago."
"Rebecca Bell and Tyla Richards," Lois repeated. Martha had picked up a pen and was scribbling the names onto the back of an envelope. "Cincinnati. Anything else?"
"That was all," Clark says. "Except he said to watch my step because the guy doesn't like competition."
"That's ominous, but it fits, after what Wolff said happened last night."
"Yeah, it does. By the way, if your Mom asks, I'm walking Candy to the bus stop before I come home."
"Why not just drive her to her apartment?"
"Because the Jeep is at the garage. I'll tell you about it when I get home. By the way, did Ellen drop off the stuff on the Murray case?"
"I haven't seen Mother all day," Lois said. "I haven't even been able to get her on her cell phone. All I get is her voice mail."
"That's odd," Clark said. "She was at the Planet, this morning. Jim said she came by to pick up something for you, and he gave her the research you asked him for, to give to you. I met her on the way out."
"Clark," Lois said, "I didn't ask her to pick anything up for me."
Silence for a moment. "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" Clark said, finally.
"That Mother came by to spy on you?"
"That's what I was thinking."
"I'll kill her," Lois said. "This is getting *way* out of hand."
"Jim said she took something out of your desk, too," Clark said, "but I'm sure she wouldn't steal anything. She'll probably give it back, later."
"I'm sure she will," Lois said. "I recognize the technique. She was establishing a reason for being there -- besides spying on you. And in the meantime, I can't work on the Murray case because of her." She paused. "Clark, *what* happened to the Jeep?"
"Um ... "
"Security called me a few minutes after I talked to you this morning. A witness reported that a vandal slashed our tires."
"It's okay. After Wolff had his people check it over, just in case, Superman did us a favor and flew it to the garage. It'll be ready in the morning."
"Clark, *who* was the witness?"
"They didn't say. Why?"
"You don't suppose it was Mother, do you?"
"It doesn't seem likely."
"Clark, you've forgotten our normal luck. Do me a favor and ask, would you?"
"Sure. But, why?"
"You don't know what my mother is capable of when she's in a crusading mood."
"Lois, I'm sure she wouldn't slash the tires, just to keep me from taking Candy home."
"Well, maybe not," Lois admitted. "But if she was there and saw the guy --"
She heard her husband sigh. "I'll call and ask, just to relieve your mind, okay? Besides, even if she did see him, what does it matter?"
"I just had a thought," Lois said. "Bobby said this stalker doesn't like competition, right?"
"And, he probably killed Johnson because he was Candy's date last night."
"So, what if he realized you were taking Candy to and from work and decided to put a stop to it? And, if by chance, my mother saw him, he might decide to be sure she couldn't identify him. I realize this is kind of far-fetched, but --"
"It isn't likely that she was the witness," Clark said, reassuringly. "Even if she was, how would he know who she is? But I'll check, just to be sure."
"Do that," Lois said. "And call me back."
"I will. And after that, I'm going to have Superman pay a visit to Myrtle's Florist and Hardware."
"*Hardware*?" Lois said.
"I'm told it's new," Clark said. "I'll call you back."
Sam Lane opened the door to the Lane penthouse.
The place was silent except for the ticking of the grandfather clock that had belonged to Ellen's parents, in the dining room. Ellen obviously wasn't home, but he hadn't really expected her to be.
He closed the door behind him, turned the bolt, and headed for the master bedroom.
Sure enough, on the nightstand by Ellen's side of the bed, her cellular phone sat firmly in its charger. Evidently, his wife had forgotten to take it with her when she had gone on her errand, whatever it had been. He glanced at his watch. Surely, any ordinary appointment would have been long since over. It was past two in the afternoon. What was Ellen up to?
Sam had begun to form a suspicion about his wife's purpose for the day. Ever since that night at the Kent house, she hadn't said a word to him about her son-in-law's supposed infidelities, and that should have alerted him to trouble, he thought. Nothing he nor anyone else had said to her had managed to convince her of Clark's innocence, and he should have known that nothing would, until she had proven it or disproven it to her own satisfaction. It was one aspect of her personality that was identical to that of her elder daughter.
He stood still for a moment, thinking. If she was doing what he thought she was doing, she'd want to gather "evidence". Where was her camera? Normally, she kept it in the top drawer of her dresser, within quick reach for holiday pictures of the grandchildren. He opened the drawer and looked. The camera was gone.
Sam closed his eyes. He'd hoped he was wrong, but evidently, he'd read his wife correctly.
So, where would she be?
Chances were that she was somewhere near the Daily Planet, keeping a watch on Clark -- or, at least trying to.
He couldn't help smiling at the thought. She was going to have a very difficult time trying to keep track of Superman if he didn't want her to, but any unexplained absences would doubtless only serve to reinforce her conviction that he was cheating on Lois. He supposed it was to be expected. Lois didn't only get her hard-headedness from him. The trouble was, it was bound to backfire and cause more trouble in the long run. Lois was going to be furious if she found out what Ellen was doing.
But it wasn't necessarily true, he thought, hopefully. There was still a good chance that he was wrong.
Sam heaved a resigned sigh. Try as he might, he couldn't quite convince himself of that. He knew Ellen too well. Well, he supposed he should try to find her and at least make an attempt to convince her to give up the mission. 'Right! Fat chance of that, Lane,' he thought. Still, if it would prevent a battle royal between Ellen and Lois, it was a worthy, if probably doomed, cause.
With a brisk step, he left the bedroom. The sooner he got this over with, the better. Besides, there was still a slim chance that he was misjudging her. Uh huh. Right. Sure he was.
He stepped into the short hallway, closing and locking the door behind him. There was a security guard by the elevator that gave access to their rooftop apartment, whom Sam had never seen before, but that wasn't unusual. He certainly didn't know all the employees of the building by sight. The guard nodded to him as he jammed a thumb on the call button.
"Good day, Dr. Lane," the man said.
"That's a matter of opinion," Sam said. "As a matter of fact, it's turning into a disaster."
"Sure, I'll check, Mr. Kent." Phil Thomet was a man probably in his early sixties with greying hair and blue eyes that had the crinkles of laugh lines at their corners. He ruffled through several sheets of paper on his desk and selected one. "Here you go. The witness was an Ellen Lane. She said the guy tried to attack her when he realized she had seen him, but the elevator doors closed and he couldn't get to her."
Clark pinched the bridge of his nose. "It figures."
"Is there a problem?" Thomet asked.
"No, not really. Ellen Lane is my mother-in-law."
"Oh?" The man raised his brows. "Blond woman, about five-two, maybe a hundred and twenty pounds?"
"That's her," Clark said. "Did she give a description of the vandal?"
Thomet checked the paper. "Sort of. She thought he was between five-eight and six feet, anywhere from thirty to forty-five, with brown hair and an angular face. No guess as to the eye color."
"That could pretty much describe half the men in Metropolis," Clark said. "Oh, well, at least he hasn't any way of identifying her."
"You're worried about what happened?"
"A little," Clark said. "The Lane women tend to attract trouble."
"Oh." The man laughed. "I guess you'd know more about that than I would, wouldn't you? Still, Ms. Lane is one great reporter."
"She is, at that," Clark agreed. "Thanks for the information."
"Don't mention it," Thomet said. He glanced at the paper. "Oh, yeah, one last thing. Mrs. Lane reported her keys lost. She's pretty sure she dropped them somewhere in the Daily Planet Building. She says it's a metal ring with five keys and a gold tag with her name and phone number on it."
Clark had the impulse to hit his head against a wall, but restrained himself and took a polite leave of Phil Thomet. Chances were extremely good, after all, that the keys were lying somewhere in the building, undiscovered, and, given time, would be found and quite possibly turned in. But if the vandal, whoever he was, had somehow managed to acquire them, and if by some wild chance he *was* Candy's stalker ...
Come on, Clark, he told himself, as he made his way back toward the stairwell, what are the chances that Lois's scenario is right? Not very high, at all, really. On the other hand, she had a point. Their luck just seemed to run to the highly unlikely. It was as if the three Fates had it in for them.
Well, that meant he had to find Ellen fast, both for Lois's peace of mind and his own. Lois's mother might be exasperating at times, but he certainly didn't want anything to happen to her. On the thought, he stepped through the door to the stairs.
Two maintenance men were working on an open panel filled with bunches of wires of varying colors. Clark walked sedately up the stairs, resisting the impulse to take off at super speed as soon as he was out of their sight. The way this place echoed, they couldn't miss hearing the characteristic "whoosh" of Superman in action. The first thing he needed to do was to get out of here and do his "hover-around-the-building-and-x-ray thing", as Lois called it. If he turned up Ellen's keys that way, then he could stop worrying. If he didn't, he'd start hunting for Ellen in earnest. And, of course, he had to call Lois.
He was just stepping out of the stairwell on the sixth floor, when he heard the radio broadcast.
The little outdoor café was a good place from which to conduct her surveillance, Ellen thought. It gave her a clear view of the Daily Planet's main entrance, and a bit of the side of the building as well, so Clark couldn't slip out the side door without her seeing him. Periodically, when someone emerged wearing a suit similar to the one she had seen him wearing this morning, she would check through the telescopic viewfinder of her camera, but so far, she had seen no sign of him. In a bit, she thought, she would call the newsroom to see if he was where he ought to be. How he reported on so many breaking stories if he stayed in the office all day, she wasn't sure, but perhaps he did a lot of his business by phone.
The distant echo of a sonic boom barely caught her attention. The residents of Metropolis heard that sound several times a day. It simply meant that Superman was headed somewhere, fast. Since the radio on a nearby table was reporting a severe mudslide in Argentina, due to the heavy rains in the area, and the fact that a town was directly in the path of the oncoming disaster, it wasn't a surprise.
The waiter had been eyeing her for the better part of an hour. Ellen signaled him and asked for her third refill. While the coffee was cooling to drinkable temperature, she made a trip to the phone on the building next to the café and dialed the number for Clark's desk. It was inconvenient that she had forgotten her cellular phone this morning. Because of the oversight, she had to rely on pay phones to make her calls.
The phone rang several times before someone picked it up. "Clark Kent's desk," a woman's voice said.
"Is Mr. Kent there?" she asked.
"No, he's out of the office," the voice replied. "Can I take a message?"
"Do you know when he'll be back?" she asked.
"I'm sorry, I don't," the voice said. "If you'd like to leave a number, he'll call you back when he gets in."
Ellen put down the phone. Clark was gone again. Maybe she should check the back of the building for other exits, although why he would be sneaking out when he didn't know she was watching, she didn't know. Maybe he had simply gone somewhere in the building. She supposed she could call his cell phone, but he could easily lie about his location.
Slowly, she returned to the table and her cooling cup of coffee. Maybe he would return to the newsroom before long. The last time, he had walked in via the front entrance, but if he didn't appear soon, she would call again -- and then, maybe she should call that Candy woman; no, she'd seen her leave with that other man, and she hadn't returned yet.
Half an hour later, Clark still wasn't answering his phone. Another voice on the line informed her that he had called in and notified Mr. White that he was on a breaking story.
Ellen set down the receiver, looking back at the Daily Planet. A taxi drew up as she did so and two persons, a man and a woman got out. The woman was wearing the same kind of coat that Candy had been when she left the Planet, several hours before, and a check through her camera's viewfinder informed Ellen that it was indeed her. So, Clark was either out on a genuine story, or there was another woman, somewhere.
Probably, he was on a story, she thought. You didn't get the kind of reputation he had as a reporter by slacking off on the job.
This wasn't getting her anywhere, she decided. Trying to keep track of Clark when he obviously had ways of getting out of the building without her seeing him, was an exercise in futility. Maybe she could learn more by talking to this Candy woman, and some of the other people in the newsroom. Perry White might growl about it, but he wouldn't make a real fuss. She dithered for a few moments over the idea, sipping the fifth cup of now-lukewarm coffee, and made a decision. Setting several bills on the table to cover the cost of the coffee and a small tip, she picked up her camera and headed toward the Daily Planet.
Candy Valenzuela was sitting at her desk when Ellen walked into the newsroom.
She stood by the elevators for a good half-minute, watching Candy, before she moved toward the steps. The society columnist was flipping through the pages of a notebook, frowning. As Ellen started down the steps and across the newsroom floor, the woman's desk phone rang, and she jumped. It rang again, and she answered it, with a cautious air. "Candy Valenzuela." Then: "Who *are* you? What do you want from me?"
Ellen frowned. What kind of conversation was that?
Several others had noticed Candy's outburst as well, including Perry White, who turned and approached her desk.
Candy jerked the receiver away from her ear, then she appeared to consciously take control of herself and set it almost gently into its cradle. She covered her face with both hands.
Perry put a hand on her shoulder. "Easy there, honey. That was ... him?"
She nodded, slowly removed her hands from her face and laid them palm down on the desktop.
"What did he want?"
She shook her head. "I don't know."
"Did he say anything?"
"Just ... the same stuff as his notes." She shuddered slightly. "Perry, what am I going to do?"
"You hang in there," her boss said. "Keep bein' as careful as you can. Clark and Jim are gonna work this out -- you'll see. Clark said Lois is helpin', too -- she's doing research at home. You got the best investigative team in the Planet on your side. Clark is driving you home tonight, isn't he?"
She shook her head. "Somebody slashed his tires. He's going to walk me to the bus stop. I should be okay from there."
"I'm not sure I like that," Perry said. "Not after what happened last night. I'm gonna ask Clark if he'll take the bus with you. He won't mind."
"He's done so much for me already," Candy said. "I don't want to impose on him any more. I'll be fine, Perry. Whoever this is, he can't do anything out in public."
"Don't count on it," Perry said. "This character is a nut. You don't know what he'll do. As soon as Clark gets back, I'm gonna talk to him."
Ellen couldn't believe her ears. It sounded as if Clark had been trying to help his co-worker with a serious problem. Was it possible? The image she'd built up of her daughter's husband had been of a man who was callously cheating on his wife, risking the welfare of his family for a cheap fling. This didn't fit the picture at all.
Perry glanced up as she took an involuntary step forward. "Ellen? What are you doin' here? Lois is okay, isn't she?"
"She's fine," Ellen said. "I was looking for Clark. Do you know where he is?"
"Yeah," Perry said. He hesitated for an instant. "He went with Superman to report on a big mudslide that was threatening a small town in Argentina. He said it looked like Superman would have it cleaned up pretty fast. Apparently, he got there in time to keep it from doing any serious damage. Why?"
Ellen blinked at him for a moment in near-disbelief. "Does he do this kind of thing often?"
"Sure," Perry said, almost off-handedly. "All the time. Clark writes about places and situations where people need help from the outside, and tries to draw attention to them. You've read his stuff, haven't you?"
Actually, she hadn't -- at least, not in the last few years, ever since she had begun to suspect that he was cheating on Lois. "Not really, no. I didn't realize ..."
"Well, he does," Perry said. He cleared his throat. "Candy, I want you to stay in the office until Clark gets back. I don't want somethin' to happen to the best society columnist I've had on my staff since Cat worked here, you hear me? If you need to do an interview, do it by phone, until we get this thing sorted out. That's an order."
"All right, Perry." Candy sounded subdued. "I should have this interview written up in a few minutes." She gave a tiny smile. "It's pretty short, but it sure took enough time to corner Overton long enough to get a statement from him. He was dodging me."
"I'm not surprised." The editor gave a snort of amusement. "You'd think these politicians would realize the public eye is on 'em and be a little more careful. I guess it's just as well for us that they aren't, though." He glanced at his watch. "Better move. The deadline for the morning edition is in half an hour."
Ellen hesitated. "Ms. ... Valenzuela? When you're done, I'd like to talk to you. About Clark. I wanted to ask you a few things."
The society columnist looked surprised. "Sure. Just give me ten minutes."
True to her words, she finished in just under the promised time. Ellen waited while she transmitted the story to Perry's computer and stood up. "Would you like to talk in private?"
"Please," Ellen said.
"I think the conference room is free," Candy said. "This way."
When the door closed behind them, Candy took a seat and indicated a chair. "Please sit down."
Ellen did so. Now that the moment had arrived, she wasn't sure what to say. Candy waited without saying anything for nearly a minute before she spoke. "Is there a problem, Mrs. Lane?"
Ellen nodded. "I need you to promise that you won't mention this to Clark."
"All right," Candy said.
Silence again. Candy waited.
"Ms. Valenzuela, I think I had the wrong impression of something," Ellen said, finally. "When I saw Clark with you ..."
"Oh," Candy said.
"I need to apologize to you for that," Ellen managed.
"No problem." Candy looked more amused than anything else. "I guess I have that reputation."
"No ..." She gathered her courage. "I've wondered for some time if Clark ... I mean, has he ever ... with other women?"
"*Clark*?" Candy looked amazed. "Mr. Straight-arrow? You're joking, right?"
"What do you mean?"
"Are you implying that *Clark* might be playing around on *Lois*?" Candy shook her head. "You've got the wrong idea about Clark, Mrs. Lane. I'm not saying that there haven't been a lot of women who have made passes at him, because there have, but he's never, to my knowledge, even looked at them."
"Oh," Ellen said. She blinked at Candy, trying to rearrange the assumptions about Clark in her mind. "Are you sure?"
"Of course I'm sure," Candy said. "If anybody would hear about something like that, it would be me. The office intern we had the first year I was here had a terrific crush on him. She'd waylay him in the copy room and anywhere else she could manage. He was always just as nice as he could be to her, but she got the message pretty quick that he wasn't interested. He never said a word about it, by the way. I guess he didn't want to embarrass her. I got the story from a couple of co-workers."
"Oh. But the way he runs off -- and those lame excuses that he gives --"
"I know. I've heard some of them," Candy said. "All I know is that he usually comes back with a Superman exclusive, afterwards. I suspect he has some kind of arrangement with Superman. I wish I knew what it was." She shrugged. "In any case, it's good for the paper and I'm not going to throw a wrench into the works. But I can pretty much say with certainty that it doesn't have anything to do with a woman. Lois is the only woman he thinks about that way, and every other female in the office knows it. That was why I asked him to drive me home, last night. I knew I could trust him."
"Oh." Ellen felt almost dizzy with relief. Of course, it wasn't proof by a long shot, but as Clark had said to her yesterday afternoon, proving a negative was virtually impossible. Still, the information that she had turned up was a positive sign. Maybe she had been wrong, after all, if Clark's co-worker called him a straight-arrow.
As Sam had pointed out, and she'd had to admit, she'd never seen Clark show any of that kind of interest in any other woman but Lois, and now Candy had independently stated the same thing. Somehow, the testimony from an outside observer was far more convincing than either Sam's or Lois's. The office grapevine usually knew if something of that sort was going on, after all. If anything, it was far more vicious than ordinary gossip. That was how she'd found out about Sam and the receptionist, years ago. She intended to keep on watching him for a while, but maybe there really was another explanation for his strange behavior. She really hoped so.
She stood up. "Thank you," she said. "I needed to hear that from someone besides ..." She broke off. "Anyway, thank you."
"You're welcome," Candy said.
"Here's the stuff on Tyla Richards," Lois said. "It looks like she was a nurse at Metro General."
"Was?" Martha said.
"Yeah. She was found strangled in the hospital parking tier, two years ago," Lois said.
Martha winced. "I guess I'm not surprised. What do you have there?"
Lois shifted her position so that she could reach the keyboard more easily. "Several articles that appeared in the local papers at the time. You'd think the poor woman would have rated more than a three-inch column in the Planet. It says here that a friend said that she'd been receiving notes from a secret admirer for some time ... and the article from the Star mentions that a hidden videocamera was found in her bedroom. The police questioned several people, but no one was ever arrested."
"It sounds awfully familiar," Martha said. "I hope the police are looking at this one in connection with Candy's stalker."
"The case is probably still open," Lois said. "They don't usually close files on unsolved murders, but eventually the trail just gets cold and they're kind of forgotten." She shifted on the couch again and tugged at the pillow, trying to raise her upper body a few inches. "I wish Jim were around right now. He can practically make a computer sit up and beg."
"I'd like to see that," Martha said, but the flash of humor disappeared quickly. "Is there any way we can see the police report? I'd like to know who they questioned, for starters."
"Me, too. And a lot of other things. I'll call the Planet in a few minutes and see what Kelly can get for me. Let's see ... she was forty-five, divorced, a resident of Metropolis since she was born. She lived in the Parkview Apartments. That's on the other side of the city from Candy's place, I think. Wait ... here's a tiny little picture of her. Let's see if I can enlarge it without fuzzing it up too much."
"Grandma!" Jimmy entered the room, dragging his tricycle. "My wheel won't work!"
"Oh dear," Martha said. "Here, let me look at it, Jimmy." She crossed the room to the four-year-old and knelt to examine the wheel. "Honey, the wheel is coming off. I think we're going to have to wait until your daddy gets home to fix it."
Lois looked at her youngest son. His lip was quivering at the unwelcome news. "Jimmy, it won't be too long. Don't you want to go up to the playroom with Jonny and the others?"
"CJ won't let me. He says Wyatt and him hafta finish building a toothpick bridge for school."
Lois sighed. "Why don't they want you there, too?"
Jimmy pouted. "I spilled the toothpicks and the glue, but it was an accident! There was lots left!"
Lois carefully didn't meet Martha's eye. "Well, honey, why don't you get the dinosaur coloring book and the crayons out? You can sit down in here and keep Grandma and me company."
It took a little more persuading, but eventually the child was seated on the floor, industriously coloring the picture of a tyrannosaurus rex a brilliant shade of blue.
Lois turned back to her task. "This is the best I can do," she said, finally. "She looks a little like Candy."
"Let me see." Martha moved around to take a look at the somewhat pixelated photograph. "You know, Lois, this worries me more by the minute. What about the other name that your friend Bobby gave Clark -- Rebecca Bell?"
"Let's see what I can find," Lois said.
The search didn't take long. Lois found herself looking at a news report of the murder of Rebecca Bell, a forty-three year old police dispatcher, found strangled in the basement of her apartment house, four years before.
She reached for the phone. "I want to see those police reports," she said. "I think we may we have a serial killer on our hands."
Ellen Lane left the Daily Planet in a much better mood than when she had entered it. The conversation with Candy Valenzuela had been enlightening, in more ways than one, and she found that she could now look at Clark's odd behavior in a more objective manner.
The things Sam had said the other night came back to her, and she gave them more attention than she had then, when she'd been so unreasonably certain that Clark was cheating.
Really, what actual evidence did she have that there was another woman? In all truth, none. His behavior was odd, but there could be another reason for it. Lois had stated unequivocally that he wasn't cheating. Ellen had dismissed that as denial, and she had to admit that Lois was good at denial, but her daughter was no fool. Sam had been correct when he'd said that Lois wouldn't put up for a minute with Clark cheating on her. He'd also said that Clark didn't show any of the signs of a man who was unfaithful to his wife, and heaven alone knew that Sam should recognize the symptoms. So if he wasn't cheating on Lois, what *was* he doing?
Walking back to the Taurus, she found herself considering that seriously for the first time.
The society columnist's testimony hadn't proven anything, of course, but maybe she should look a little closer at Clark, now that she could do it with somewhat unbiased judgement, and try to figure it out. If it indeed turned out that he had some kind of agreement with Superman, then she could fully relax. Of course, if he really was innocent, she'd also have to apologize to him, and that wasn't something she was good at, but if she knew her son-in-law at all, he'd accept it and never bring up the subject again. Clark didn't hold grudges. It was one of the characteristics about him that she had been forced to acknowledge, even while she had suspected him of the worst possible behavior.
Slowly, she got back into her car and sat still, thinking.
All right, what did she know about Clark's disappearances? She rummaged in her purse for the little notebook she used to write herself reminders, and her gold, monogrammed ballpoint pen.
Well, she knew that he frequently went with Superman to write about disasters in other countries. Perry White had said so. Candy Valenzuela had said that he often ran out of the newsroom with lame excuses, just the way she had seen him do at home, and came back with Superman exclusives, so Superman was a common factor. Her gaze fell on the alley from which Clark had emerged earlier in the day. He couldn't have gotten in there without her seeing him, unless he'd been delivered there by Superman. But, why on Earth would Superman drop him in an alley? It didn't make sense.
If she thought about it, Superman figured in a great deal of Lois and Clark's lives. Lois had had a crush on the hero for two years before she and Clark had finally become a couple, and he remained a close friend of the family, but Clark didn't seem to mind. He'd brought Sam and her to Lois's wedding, for heaven's sake, and Jonathan and Martha as well -- but he hadn't attended the wedding, itself, which was strange. She'd half-expected Superman to be Clark's best man. The two men were obviously close friends. They even looked a little alike, although Clark wasn't as tall, or as muscular.
A slightly scandalous thought occurred to her, and she dismissed it at once. She wasn't going to go *that* route again, unless no other explanation presented itself. There had to be another answer, if she could just see it.
Well, it would probably be a while before Clark and Superman got back from Argentina. She certainly had time to return home and pick up her cellular phone. She'd had enough of hunting around for pay phones for the day, and maybe something would occur to her while she was driving. Security could let her into the penthouse. The thought reminded her that she still needed to check with Lost and Found at the Planet to see if anyone had returned her keys yet, but she could do that later.
She started up the engine and moved carefully out into traffic. The beginning of the afternoon rush hour had begun, but it would be some time before it would become seriously impassable.
The drive to the tall apartment building that housed the penthouse she shared with Sam took just over twenty minutes. Ellen pulled into the entrance to the parking garage, thrust the plastic card that gave her access to the structure into its slot and drove through as the wooden arm lifted automatically. She found the spot reserved for her vehicle, turned off the engine and got out, locking the door behind her.
The parking lot was empty except for rows upon rows of expensive cars, and as usual, it gave her a faint feeling of uneasiness as she walked briskly through the echoing structure. Her footsteps sounded loudly on the cement and she found herself wishing that she hadn't worn heels today. What had she been thinking? If she'd decided to trail after Clark on foot, she wouldn't have been able to do it. Well, that was one other thing she would change when she got upstairs.
She paused in front of the elevator reserved for residents of the building and rang for the car. It was on the fourth floor, but it was heading downward. Ellen waited impatiently. She wanted to get back before Clark returned.
Somebody else was walking in the parking area. She could hear the footsteps of a man, and once, the scrape of a leather sole against cement, echoing through the breezy, concrete structure. There was something odd about the footsteps, however. They were almost furtive, and twice they seemed to stop, and then start up again. And, they were coming toward her.
Ellen looked around, trying to see whoever it was that was approaching her in such a strange fashion. For an instant, she saw motion by one of the supporting pillars, and then whoever it was had vanished behind the big, column of concrete.
A chill ran across her scalp, even as she told herself that she was safe here. All she had to do was to shout for help and Security would be there within moments.
Moments could be too long, she found herself thinking. The silence lengthened, and suddenly there was sound, as a car entered the garage and pulled past her into a nearby spot. Two residents of the building, whom she recognized as a retired lawyer and his wife, got out and strolled in a leisurely fashion toward her. Scott Tighe stopped suddenly and glanced quickly around. Ellen became aware of the irregular sound of retreating footsteps echoing though the structure.
"What was that?" he demanded.
"What was what?" his wife asked.
"Didn't you see him?" He pointed at the pillar. "It looked like somebody ran!"
They were silent for long seconds. Ellen heard the faintest of fading echoes, and then nothing.
"Let's get out of here," Amanda Tighe said. "We can notify Security in the lobby. Did you call the elevator, Ellen?"
Ellen nodded, aware at the same time that her heart had begun to pound and she suddenly felt short of air. "It should be here in a minute."
"I've said before that they should put a guard down here," Amanda said. "Anyone could get into this place."
"It was probably nothing," Ellen said. "A transient, maybe. But I agree."
"We should bring it up at the next tenants' meeting," Amanda said.
The elevator arrived and they boarded. Ellen tried to quiet the jitters that ran along her nerves as the car moved slowly upward. Nothing, really, had happened, and she was probably right that it had been only a transient, but quite suddenly she recalled the man whom she had seen this morning in the Daily Planet parking structure, slashing the tires of the Kent Jeep. The man who had tried to attack her when he realized that she had seen him.
Put in the context of what she had learned at the Daily Planet, it had begun to take on more sinister possibilities than a simple act of vandalism. Could it possibly have had something to do with the person who was apparently stalking Candy Valenzuela?
It was silly, she knew. Even if it were true, the vandal had no idea who she was. There could be no possible connection to the person in the garage, downstairs.
And with that thought, another image flashed through her mind. The whole event earlier had left her shaken enough at the time that she hadn't remembered clearly. She knew suddenly where she had lost her keys.
She'd struck the oncoming assailant with her handbag. The bag's latch had not held and there had been a clink as something flew from her purse and struck the concrete floor outside the elevator, just as the doors had closed.
Her key ring. With her name and phone number on it.
The whoosh of air past the window alerted Lois that her husband had landed in the back yard. A moment later, Clark entered the living room via the kitchen door.
"Daddy!" Jimmy shouted. The four-year-old charged his father and Clark caught him and swung him over his head.
"Hi, sport! How's it going?"
"Daddy, can you fix my trike?" Jimmy demanded. "It's broke."
"Ah, that explains the enthusiasm," Clark said. "Okay, I'll take a look at it in a minute. I can't stay long. I have to get back to the Planet." He set his youngest son on the floor and crossed to Lois. "I needed to take a shower. Hi, Mom."
Martha sniffed and ostentatiously held her nose, but she was smiling.
"You smell funny, Daddy," Jimmy announced, as Lois became aware of a definite odor of decay.
"I guess you ran into something smelly in Argentina?" she said.
"You could say that. The mudslide brought a lot of debris with it," Clark explained. "I rinsed it off in a stream, but I figured I'd better have a shower with soap before I went back to work. How about you? Did you find anything of interest?"
"Yeah. Why don't you go get that shower, and I'll tell you about it while you fix Jimmy's tricycle," Lois said.
"Good idea." He half-ran up the stairs, and an instant later, she heard the shower come on.
True to his word, he was back within five minutes, his hair combed neatly and curling somewhat from the water. "Okay, pal, let's see that trike." He glanced at Lois. "What did you find?"
"Tyla Richards and Rebecca Bell were both murdered," Lois said. "One of them two years ago and one four years ago, in the last week of April. Kelly's trying to get the police reports for me, now. I started looking for similar stuff in Cincinnati -- I have a friend on the Cincinnati Register, there -- since that's where Bobby told you to look, and it turns out that there were four killings that match the pattern -- six, eight, ten and twelve years ago respectively. The police there called him the 'Two Year Killer'. Anyhow, she's faxing the police reports to the Planet for you to read, since I didn't know you were coming home for a bath. He always sends them notes and letters first, and there's always a videocamera in their bedroom. And every one of them has been strangled."
"But this guy tampered with Candy's brakes," Clark said. "That doesn't match."
"She wasn't killed," Lois said. "I think it was just meant to scare her. Apparently that's part of the pattern -- to scare them, first. Oh, yeah -- and a couple of times when the victim was being stalked, she would get someone to go with her places. One of the men was killed, and the other was shot, but survived. He didn't see the guy's face, though."
"Did the police have any clues?" Clark asked. He had lowered his glasses, and Lois saw a tiny tendril of smoke rise from the metal pin that held on the rear wheel of Jimmy's tricycle. The four-year-old craned his neck, trying unsuccessfully to see over his father's shoulder. "There you go, sport. All fixed." He blew gently on the repaired pin. "You take it out on the patio and ride it there, okay?"
"'Kay, Daddy," Jimmy said. He planted a wet kiss on his father's cheek and departed, dragging the tricycle.
Lois shook her head. "They had several possible suspects," she said, "but no physical evidence, and nothing linked any of them with more than one woman. None of the women were physically assaulted before their murder, so there wasn't any DNA evidence."
"How about the notes?"
"Printed via a computer -- the couple that they managed to find. He didn't use the same printer, either, so there's no match, except the technique, itself, and the phrasing of the notes."
"Still," Clark said, "it does sound like the same guy's after Candy. I'd better get back to the Planet. He's going to have a harder job getting rid of her bodyguard, this time."
Lois nodded. "Be careful. And Clark, there was one other thing that bothered me. A woman reported seeing a man hanging around the home of one of the victims, and described him to the police. She was found shot to death a couple of weeks later."
"Did you get the description she gave?"
"Yeah. It's in the fax. You'd better go, Clark. I'm worried about Candy, and Mother. If the person she saw slashing the tires was the stalker --"
"Your mom could be in danger," Clark finished. "The guy does seem to cover his tracks pretty carefully. I'll find her, and bring her here for safety until we nail this character."
"I'll feel better if you do," Lois said. "There are times I'd like to wring her neck, but I don't want her to be murdered."
Sam Lane glanced up at the flash of blue overhead as he approached the Daily Planet. There was nothing in sight, now, but he was pretty sure that he'd caught a glimpse of Superman. Hopefully, he was on his way back to the newsroom after the business in Argentina. He wanted to speak to his son-in-law in hopes of heading off a confrontation between Lois and her mother. He hadn't been able to find Ellen, in spite of a good deal of time spent searching, so it looked as if this was his next best bet. Clark would almost certainly cooperate. The last thing he wanted right now was anything that might upset Lois unnecessarily and precipitate an early labor.
"Sam!" Clark's voice behind him almost made him jump. He turned to see his son-in-law jogging toward him down the sidewalk. For a second, Sam was assailed by doubt, and then he caught himself. Considering the speed at which Superman could move, Clark would have no difficulty in appearing to be virtually in two places at once, should he choose to do so.
He lifted a hand in greeting. Clark arrived beside him, not even breathing hard. Naturally. Looking at him now, Sam could see Superman's face behind the glasses and hairstyle that Clark affected, but it was easy to see how he had fooled everyone for so long. A great deal of the disguise was the differences in mannerisms between the two personas: all the unconscious visual signals that communicate a person's identity to others. One would never have believed, looking at Clark Kent, that he was capable of such a complete alteration in not only his appearance but his body language as well. His son-in-law had to be one of the most accomplished actors of all time, at least in this area.
"Hello, Clark," he said. "I was hoping I'd find you. I'm looking for Ellen."
"That makes two of us," Clark said. "You have no idea where she might be?"
Sam discovered that even at his age, he had not forgotten how to be embarrassed. "Maybe. I think she may be somewhere around the Daily Planet."
Clark was looking at him oddly, but he merely said, "She was, earlier, but I haven't been able to find her. Even Superman's been looking, and he can't locate her, either."
"What do you want her for?" Sam asked.
Clark hesitated. "Come up to the newsroom and I'll explain. Lois and I are afraid that she might be in danger."
"Danger!" Sam stopped in his tracks, aware of a jolt of apprehension at the thought that Ellen could be in trouble. "Why? What's wrong?"
"We have a situation with one of our people. Ellen may have witnessed something that she shouldn't have ..."
By the time that they arrived in the newsroom, Clark had finished explaining, and Sam found that his heart had begun to pound. "So, you're afraid that a serial killer may be after Ellen?"
"Sam, it's just a possibility. She's probably all right. It's just that Lois and I want to be sure she's safe while we figure out who this guy is. Can you think of anywhere she might be?"
Sam shook his head. "I came over here because I had a hunch she was in the area," he said.
He saw a slight smile cross Clark's face. "Oh?"
"Um ... yeah. I'm pretty sure she was trying to follow you."
"Yeah, I kind of figured that out, myself."
Sam glanced quickly at him. He probably shouldn't have been surprised, but he was. "How ..."
"Never mind. I'll explain later. Right now, we need to focus on finding her."
"Clark!" The hail came from a tall, slender blond woman wearing an outfit that opened his eyes a little. That had to be Candy Valenzuela, Sam thought: the stalker's target. If Ellen had seen her with Clark when he had driven her to work this morning, he could understand his wife's suspicions. Candy had to be in her mid-forties, but she carried her age well. Oddly enough, though, Sam found his wife more attractive, even if he couldn't say why. She was certainly less glamorous than the society columnist, and had acquired some padding in places that distressed her, but that didn't seem to matter anymore. The fact that Ellen might be in danger overrode all other considerations in his mind.
Clark led the way down to the main floor of the newsroom, to Candy's desk. "Is something wrong?" he asked.
Candy was holding up a digital camera that Sam recognized immediately as belonging to Ellen. "Lois's mother was here a little while ago," she said. "After she left, I found her camera sitting on my desk. She must have forgotten it."
"Oh, thanks." Clark took the camera. "This is Dr. Lane, Lois's father, Candy. He's looking for Ellen. By any chance, did she say where she was going when she left?"
"I'm afraid not," Candy said. "Detective Wolff called, though. He wanted you to call him back."
"Did he say what he wanted?"
"He was checking on the name of that shop that the flowers came from. He wanted to be sure he had it right."
"Oh. Wasn't it on the card?"
Candy shook her head. "I looked. It's just a plain card. There wasn't any label on the vase, either."
"I'd better call him," Clark said, handing the camera to Sam. "Just a minute."
Sam nodded, checking the camera. Ellen had taken only three shots, by the reading on the counter. Maybe this would tell him where she had been, or give him some idea of where she would go next. He fiddled for several seconds with the unfamiliar controls.
"Hi, Dr. Lane." Jim Olsen had approached while he wrestled with the buttons. "Having a problem?"
"Sort of." He held out the camera. "Do you know how to work this thing?"
"What do you want to do with it?" Jim asked, taking it from him.
"You're supposed to be able to see the pictures on this screen," Sam said, "but I can't make it work. You're the expert. Can you fix it?"
"Sure." Jim did something and the screen lit obediently. "Here you go."
It appeared to be a picture of Candy Valenzuela and an unidentified man leaving the Daily Planet via the front door. Evidently, he had been right in his guess about Ellen's activities this morning, but somehow that no longer mattered.
Candy Valenzuela glanced at the picture. "That was taken directly across the street from the Planet."
"Looks like it," Jim said. "This is a nice camera. Look at the picture quality."
Indeed, the image was clear and sharp. He took the camera back. "How do I see the others?"
"Just push this button," Jim said. He demonstrated, and the picture shifted. "See?"
The photo showed Clark Kent, obviously headed for the main door of the Planet Building, his figure half obscured by a man in a security guard's uniform.
"What?" Clark's voice was suddenly sharp, drawing their attention. "Are you certain?"
People turned to look at him. He listened a few seconds more. "All right, Detective. Thanks." He put down the phone.
"What is it?" Candy asked. "What did Wolff say?"
"There *is* no business in town called 'Myrtle's Florist and Hardware'. There isn't even one within at least fifty miles of Metropolis."
"What?" Sam said.
"The stalker," Clark said. "He sent Candy a bouquet of flowers. The delivery boy said they were from 'Myrtle's Florist and Hardware'. I asked him if he'd seen the man who ordered them, and he said no. But, there isn't any such place. He lied."
"Why would he lie about something like that?" Candy asked, looking slightly bewildered. Then, her face changed. "Ohmigod."
"He's the stalker," Jim said.
"Lois said his pattern is to scare his victims first," Clark said. "I guess he wants to see it."
"What do you mean?" Candy asked. "Have you found out something, Clark?"
He nodded. "Lois did," he said. His eye fell on the camera Sam was holding in one hand, the second picture Ellen had taken still showing on the small screen. "What's this?" he asked, his voice suddenly tense. He took the camera from Sam's hand and looked at the picture closely, then lowered his glasses.
"I'm nearsighted," he said absently to Candy, examining the picture. He pushed the glasses back up his nose and held the camera out to Jim Olsen. "Can you enlarge this as much as possible and still get a clear picture?"
"Sure." Jim took the camera. "I'll download the software for the camera from the home site and have it for you in fifteen minutes."
"What is it?" Sam asked.
"The security guard passing me in the picture. It's the delivery boy."
"The one who brought the flowers?" Candy asked.
"I'm pretty sure it is," Clark said. "If I'm right, we've got a picture of our stalker."
Ellen closed the door of the penthouse behind her and locked it. Security had produced a spare key for her, and she felt safer with a locked door between her and the outside world. She fastened the chain lock as well as the sliding bolt and leaned back against the door, closing her eyes.
The realization that the man whom she had seen vandalizing the Kent Cherokee had a way to identify her, and perhaps track her down, had been terrifying at first. She had been almost certain for some moments there in the elevator that it must have happened that way, that the person in the apartment's parking structure had been him. Finally, however, common sense prevailed and she had managed to reason with her more primitive instincts.
Why on Earth would he be so stupid as to track her down and do her some kind of harm for something so minor as vandalism? It wasn't as if he'd committed murder or something. Even if he was the stalker that Clark and Jim were trying so hard to identify, why should the fact that she, Ellen, had seen him, matter? It wasn't as if she knew who he was, after all. Coming after her would be the very worst in stupidity.
No, the person in the parking garage was undoubtedly simply a transient who hadn't wanted to be caught. There was no connection to her. There couldn't be.
But, the locked door certainly made her feel better.
After a few moments, her heart ceased its heavy thumping and she took a deep breath, forcing herself to relax. There was no reason to be afraid. If she didn't watch it, she'd be heading into the bathroom for her tranquilizers, which she was trying very hard to learn to live without. Not only were they expensive, but they made her feel dependent on them, apprehensive when they weren't within reach. They reminded her unpleasantly of the time, years ago now, when the bottle of vodka, or any other alcoholic beverage, had been her constant companion, and it didn't matter that her doctor and Sam both had tried to tell her that it wasn't the same. To her, they were a sign of weakness: a crutch. She didn't want or need a crutch, ever again.
'Come on, Ellen,' she told herself. 'Lois deals with muggers and car thieves and psychopathic killers all the time. Surely, you can cope with a trespasser in the parking garage!'
The thought made her stiffen her backbone. With a decisive motion, she pushed herself away from the door and stood upright. The sooner she got her cellular phone, the sooner she could leave and go back to the Daily Planet. The report on the car radio that she'd heard on the way home told her that Superman had saved the day again and headed back to the United States, so Clark was almost certainly back by this time. She'd hoped to get back before he did, but she should have known that Superman wouldn't waste any time with the mudslide.
It wasn't really important, she decided. The important thing, now, was to find out what Clark was really doing if he wasn't chasing skirts. Once she knew for sure, she could drop the matter. She hadn't really wanted to prove that he was cheating on Lois, after all. Except for her suspicions about his extra-curricular activities, she liked her son-in-law. He was pretty hard to dislike, really. He had the kind of personality that attracted people, which was one of the things that had made her suspicious. Too often, a charming personality masked a darker secret, as Lex Luthor's had. She had never equated Clark with Lex, but it had made her wary.
The bedroom door was open, which wasn't the way she usually left it. For a moment a thrill of alarm ran down her spine. Again, common sense prevailed. She had been in a hurry this morning, and had undoubtedly forgotten to close the door, just as she had forgotten her phone. Firmly squashing down her apprehension, Ellen walked into the bedroom.
Her phone sat in its charger, just where she had put it last night. She crossed the rug quickly and picked it up. No more pay phones, she told herself, triumphantly. How she'd ever managed before Sam had made her a present of the phone, she had no idea. The little item was amazingly convenient. Thrusting it into her purse, she clicked the catch, making sure this time that it was completely closed, and turned to retrace her steps.
But, to go back to the Daily Planet, she was going to have to go back into the parking lot to get the Taurus.
The thought gave her pause for a moment, then she took a firm grip on her courage. This whole thing was silly. Forget it, Ellen! You're not in any danger at all. Still, she hesitated. Would it hurt to take along a little something for self-defense? Sam had been after her to do so, ever since they had nearly been mugged last year by a druggie looking for more funds to purchase his substance of choice. Superman had saved them then, but Superman couldn't always be around, as Sam had pointed out later. He'd bought her a canister of tear gas that had gone into her bottom dresser drawer, never to be thought of again.
It was silly, she assured herself once more, but after a second's pause, she opened the drawer and fumbled around among her night clothing and various odds and ends until she located the little cylinder. With it safely tucked in the pocket of her smart, designer suit, she turned again toward the living room.
As she left the bedroom, her heel caught on the place in the rug where the seam between the bedroom and living room carpet had begun to fray. She really had to have that repaired, but it reminded her that she had intended to change her heels for more sensible footwear. She made a quick trip back to the bedroom for flat shoes. Ready, at last, she left the penthouse, unaware of the living room phone that began to ring seconds after she closed the door.
"Nobody answers at the penthouse," Clark said, putting down the phone. "Can you think of any other place that she might go?"
Sam bit his thumbnail, wracking his brain to come up with some kind of an idea. "I don't know! She was obviously here, earlier, but I don't have any idea where she might have gone, now! She had her hair done on Friday, so I don't think she'd be at her beauty parlor. I doubt she went shopping -- not with this other project on her mind."
"Probably not," Clark said. "And you say, she left her cell phone at home?" At Sam's nod, he lifted a hand to fiddle with his glasses. "I'm going to look around."
"Here you go, CK." Jim Olsen appeared with a sheet of printer paper in his hand. "I like that camera," he added, to Sam. "The picture quality is really good. I may get one of my own." He laid the picture on Candy's desk and Clark, Sam and Candy leaned forward to study it.
Sam blinked. The face in the printout was familiar. "Clark, I've seen this guy before."
"It's the delivery boy, all right," Clark said. "Wearing a Planet Security outfit, this time. Do you remember where you saw him, Sam?"
Sam shook his head. "Recently, but I don't know where."
"So, he's hanging around the Planet for some reason," Clark said.
"To keep an eye on me," Candy said.
"Probably. And that would make it pretty easy to slash the Jeep's tires, too," Clark said. He glanced at Candy. "I'm going to take a quick look around for Ellen. Don't leave, Candy. I don't want you to go to your apartment right now. This guy isn't just a random nut. He's a serial killer. If what Lois found out is right, and it sounds like it is, he's setting you up for a murder. All the killings happened in the last week of April, and that's this week. Let's not take chances, all right?"
Candy nodded. "You don't have to tell me twice," she said. "I'll stay right here."
"I'll be back in a little while and we'll figure out what to do," Clark assured her. "Jim, can you fax this picture to Wolff? Call him for me and tell him what we've figured out."
"You got it." Jim picked up the photo. "Maybe you could get Superman to look for Ellen. If that fax from Lois's friend is right, it sounds as if she could be in trouble."
"I may do that," Clark said. "I'll be back, shortly." He headed for the elevator at a half-run.
Ellen Lane stepped into the elevator, conscious of a slight sense of nervousness. In spite of her reasoning, the experience in the parking garage had left her a little shaken, but she wasn't going to let it get to her. She swallowed and pushed the button for the basement.
The elevator went into motion, and she grasped the handrail. Confronting her fears, she remembered her therapist saying, was one of the best ways of dealing with them. If you took them on directly, they couldn't eat at you and undermine your self-confidence. That was part of her problem, she thought. She tended to fret over problems until they looked bigger than they really were. Look at how she had built Clark's strange disappearances into something that they probably weren't. Clark had been amazingly patient with her really awful suspicions about him, and she very probably owed him an apology. Well, he would get one, when and if she discovered what was really going on.
The elevator slid to a stop on the eighth floor and two persons whom Ellen vaguely recognized got on. One of the men nodded at her in a friendly way, but didn't speak. His companion pressed the button for the first floor.
The car stopped again on the third floor and several more persons crowded on. The door closed, and the car moved downward once more. Finally, with a faint creak, it slid to a stop at the small lobby on the first floor. Most of the people exited, but Mary Adams, a fairly new tenant whose husband was a retired dentist, stayed on, apparently also headed for the parking garage.
The doors closed and the car started downward again. Mary glanced at her.
"How are you this afternoon, Ellen?"
"Oh, fine." Ellen grasped the rail for balance again, as the elevator had a tendency to give an occasional jolt as it moved. In spite of its elegance and an attempt at modernization, this was an old building. "How are you and Rory?"
"In excellent health, thank you." Mary also grasped the rail. "Did Security get hold of you?"
"Security?" Ellen asked. "No, why?"
"About noon, one of the guards stopped me in the lobby and asked where you lived. I think he must be new, because he didn't know. I told him you were married to Dr. Lane, in the penthouse apartment."
"I spoke to Security a little while ago. I'd lost my keys," Ellen said. "They didn't say anything about wanting to talk to me."
"Really?" Mary said. "That's odd. The guard had your keys. He was trying to return them to you."
Sam watched the stair door close behind Clark. It was obvious in retrospect, he thought, that his son-in-law would take the stairs, not the elevator, as Sam had assumed he would. Clark could traverse the stairway in seconds and Superman would undoubtedly leave from the roof of the Daily Planet. It was fascinating to see the ways Clark had come up with to deal with his double life -- or it would have been, if he hadn't been so worried about Ellen.
He glanced at the print of the photo that Ellen had taken, lying on Jim Olsen's desk, and then walked over to pick it up. He frowned at the picture of the man in the security guard's uniform, wracking his brain. The face was familiar. He'd seen this man, and recently, but where? He'd even been in a similar outfit ...
"Holy ...!" He broke off the exclamation.
"What's the matter, Sam?" Jim had half-risen from his desk, the telephone receiver in one hand.
"I know where I saw this guy! He was standing right outside the penthouse door when I left it, a couple of hours ago!"
Perry White had come out of his office and now he crossed the room to Jim's desk. "What's goin' on?"
Sam thrust the paper into the editor's hand. "Jim can tell you! I have to get back! He's looking for Ellen!"
"What?" Perry said. He looked at the paper. "What's this?"
"But Ellen was here," Jim said. "He couldn't have found her."
"But, what if she went home?" Sam started for the elevator. "When Clark comes back, tell him where I went. And if he finds her first, tell him to call me right away!"
"You got it, Sam. And I'll tell Wolff what you said." Jim was punching a number into the phone as he spoke.
Sam barely heard him. He almost ran up the ramp to the elevator and rang for the car. His hands were shaking. If Ellen had gone back to the penthouse, the guy could have found her. He could have killed her already!
The elevator car arrived, after an interminable wait. He squeezed through the doors before they had entirely finished opening and was pushing the button for the first floor.
He had never realized before how unbearably slow the elevator for the Planet was. The doors took their time closing, and then the car moved downward at the pace of a dying snail. By some miracle, it didn't stop before it reached the main floor, although for a short time, he was positive that it had stalled. At long last, the doors opened on the lobby of the Daily Planet.
He shoved his way rudely through the cluster of persons waiting for the elevator. It was faster to go out the side door than to try to crowd through the mob at the revolving doors. His car was parked halfway down the block, and Sam literally ran toward it, vaguely grateful, in the back of his mind, that he made a point of playing tennis three times a week to keep in shape. Heads turned as he went by, but he didn't slow down.
He was shaking so hard that he missed the door lock twice with the key before he forced his hand to stop trembling long enough to insert it and unlock the door. Wrenching it open, he yanked the seatbelt over his torso with one hand, while jamming the key into the ignition with the other. As the engine roared to life, he belatedly shut the door and twisted about.
The car behind him had pulled in close. Sam made himself back carefully and move out into traffic with a modicum of caution. He didn't know that Ellen was at the apartment building, he reminded himself. Chances were that she was still around here somewhere, and that Clark would find her, but the near-panic that welled up in him wasn't rational. Somewhere near their home, a killer was lying in wait for Ellen. He had to be sure that she was all right. He wasn't going to let a man who was already a murderer harm his wife!
Traffic was starting to get heavy. Early afternoon rush hour was already underway, and veteran rush hour drivers neither gave nor expected quarter. Sam, in general, avoided driving during rush hour. The big, black Mercedes was his pride and joy, and he didn't even like to contemplate the thought of picking up a scratch or a ding on its sleek exterior, but now, that consideration was nonexistent in his mind. He changed lanes under the nose of a gasoline truck and promptly switched lanes again into a space barely longer than the car. Brakes screeched behind him and horns blared, but he paid no attention, swinging left around the corner against the red light, with inches to spare ahead of oncoming traffic. The driver of a bright red Ferrari saw the big, black car directly in his path and jammed on his brakes. Tires squealed and another chorus of horns sounded, but Sam shot across the intersection, turned left into the nearest open lane and stepped on the gas.
"He had my *keys*?" Ellen repeated.
"Yes. He showed them to me. He said he'd found them in the lobby. A key ring with a gold tag on them that had your name engraved on it. I offered to take them and be sure you got them back, but he said he couldn't legally do that. So, I told him where you lived."
"Oh." Ellen smiled mechanically. She'd been sure she'd lost those keys at the Daily Planet. Was it possible she'd been mistaken?
No, it wasn't. She'd driven to the Planet, and she'd had to use her keys to do it. The security guard had lied, and there was only one reason he would do that. Ellen gulped down the lump of panic that tried to rise in her throat. This time she couldn't tell herself that it was all her imagination.
There was a chime as the elevator slid to a stop and the doors opened. Mary stepped out, waving one hand at Ellen and breezed away down an aisle of cars toward her assigned spot. Ellen automatically stepped out after her.
Wait a minute! What was she doing? If that guy was still looking for her, this was the obvious place for him to do so! Ellen spun, reaching for the call button, but the doors had already closed as she did so and the lighted "B" on the display panel went out. The number "1" lit up.
Frantically, she pushed the call button several times, looking around as she did so. No one was in sight, but she heard the engine of a car start up somewhere. That was probably Mary, she thought.
The lighted "1" went out, and after a few seconds the "2" lit up.
This wasn't going to work, she thought. Standing here, waiting for the elevator to come back was making her a target. But, what should she do?
Her car was only two rows away. Once in it, she would be fairly safe. She could drive out of here and back to the Planet. Clark would know what to do, she thought. He always seemed to, anyway. Wait! Why not call him? She had her phone, now. She was no longer isolated just because no one was nearby.
She had started to reach for the catch of her purse, when she heard the echo of footsteps light and quick on the concrete. They stopped, and she waited, straining her ears in the silence that had descended.
Another rush of footsteps, and again, silence.
She felt as if she were spotlighted in front of the elevator, a target for whoever it was that was stalking her so frighteningly. She couldn't stay here!
Cars were parked on either side of the elevator doors, close to the concrete wall, the nearest no more than ten feet away. Ellen turned and half ran toward it, her own footsteps almost silent in the rubber-soled jogging shoes.
Somewhere, she could hear more footsteps. The echoes of this place made it difficult to tell exactly where they were coming from, but she was fairly certain they were still some distance away. Still, he must be able to see her, or he wouldn't be coming toward her. The only reason he was being careful, she thought, must be the fear that someone else would suddenly appear on the scene, or perhaps a car would drive into the garage, and the occupants would see him.
One of the big, concrete supports loomed on her right, and she ducked behind it, breathing hard. This wouldn't do as a hiding place, she thought. He had probably seen where she went, but there was a row of cars only a few feet beyond. If she ducked into that, keeping as low as possible, perhaps he wouldn't be able to tell for sure where she had gone. All she needed was a few, uninterrupted seconds to call for help.
She looked around. No one was visible from her position against the concrete pillar, but the thought that he might be sneaking up from the other side left her almost breathless with fright. She gathered her nerve and made a rush for the row of cars. There was a space between the fenders and the wall. She edged between it, made her way along the wall. If he tried to come at her now, at least she would have plenty of warning.
But, he could see her, and she couldn't see him. That gave him the advantage. What if he had a gun?
There was another uneven rush of footsteps that echoed around her and a glimpse of movement among the cars some twenty yards away made her hair try to stand on end. She fished in her purse, groping for the cell phone.
"Ellen." The voice echoed softly around the concrete structure. "Come on, Ellen. You can't get away. You're twice my age, and I can move faster than you. Why don't you just give up?"
She flattened herself against the wall, watching the spot where she had seen that flash of movement.
Soft laughter. "Stupid. I'm coming for you, Ellen. Maybe, if you're a good girl, I'll make it quick."
He was right. He had all the advantage. What would Lois do in this situation? Ellen looked right and left, frantically searching for some way to help even the odds.
"I've turned off the intercom, Ellen. If you scream, Security won't hear you. You can scream your head off, and nobody will come."
To her left, farther along the wall, was a metal box. It had the circuit breakers for the lights here in the garage, and the padlock had been gone for months. If her pursuer couldn't see her, it would make it harder for him to locate her, or to shoot at her, and might give her a better chance. In four steps she was at the box and jerking it open. Quickly, she snapped all the switches, one after another. The parking garage was plunged into dimness.
She could hear the footsteps coming toward her again, and she ducked between the cars, bending low, and scurried as fast as she could toward the next aisle, her feet nearly silent in the rubber soles.
Her heart was beating like a hammer in her chest, but the trembling and feelings of panic were under control. She had always assumed that she would freeze with terror if she were ever faced with something like her daughter faced on a semi-regular basis, but she hadn't. All she felt was a determination to survive, somehow. Was this how Lois felt in a tight situation?
All she needed to do was to find a place to hide for a few minutes. If nothing else, she could speed dial Lois. Her daughter could call the police. Or Superman. Superman always seemed to show up when Lois needed him. Maybe he would come for her, too.
Faint light leaked into the parking garage from the entranceway, but deeper in the structure, the darkness was nearly complete. She scooted around the rear of a convertible and scuttled, crouching low, down the row of cars.
"That wasn't very nice, Ellen," the soft voice echoed around her, mocking her and she resolutely strove to ignore the shivers it sent up her spine. "Now, I'll have to make you sorry for what you did. Why don't you just give up?"
Giving up wasn't in the cards, she thought. Not this time. Not in the most important contest of her life. She was through giving up. She knew where that got her.
She could hear her pursuer's footsteps back the way she had come. He was bound to turn the lights back on any second. She needed to find a hiding place as quickly as she could.
The next vehicle in the row was an SUV. She slipped around it and pressed her back to it, trying to breathe quietly, and found herself silently giving thanks to her aerobics instructor for getting her into the shape where she could actually tolerate this kind of strenuous activity. She groped in her purse again and her hand closed around the cellular phone.
The lights blazed back on, seeming much brighter than a few moments before, although she knew that it was only an illusion. She flipped open the phone and her finger punched the two-number combination to speed-dial Lois.
"I see you!" The voice sounded much louder, bouncing around the walls of the cavernous space.
She didn't think he did. It was a trick to lure her out, to make her bolt from cover, but she could feel her heartbeat speed up.
The phone was ringing, and Lois's voice was suddenly answering. "Hello? Mother?"
"Lois, help!" she whispered into the little mouthpiece, as loudly as she could. "Help!"
The apartment building loomed ahead and Sam swung into the garage entrance. His heart was still pounding with dread. In spite of his aggressive driving, to describe it in the best possible light, it had taken too long to get here, even though his watch only said ten minutes. The thing was broken; it was the only explanation.
He pulled to a stop at the barrier and rolled down his window, fumbling for his parking pass, and a woman's scream made his heart leap into his throat. That was Ellen's voice.
The plastic card dropped to the ground and Sam shoved his foot to the floor. He barely noticed the wooden arm snap like balsa wood as the Mercedes leaped forward.
"Mother? Where are you?"
"Pent --" She broke off as the footsteps pounded toward her. He had heard the whisper. The echoes of this place had given her away.
The figure of a man clad in the uniform of a security guard appeared suddenly, less than ten feet from her hiding place. Ellen screamed and threw the phone at him. He ducked, and incredibly the little instrument bounced off the bridge of his nose. She turned to run, one hand groping in the pocket of her suit as he recovered and lunged toward her, his hands outstretched. His clutching fingers caught the sleeve of her jacket and she screamed again, trying to wrench free.
There was a screech of tires and a splintering crash, and her assailant jerked halfway around. Unbelieving, Ellen saw Sam's treasured Mercedes as it burst into the garage, part of the shattered, wooden arm that regulated cars entering the lot still clinging to the grill, as she aimed the little canister of teargas and sprayed her captor full in the face.
The Mercedes screeched to a stop and Sam leaped out. "Ellen!"
The would-be assailant was clutching his face, choking and coughing, tears running down his cheeks. Ellen sprayed him again, for good measure. Sam ran toward her, and Ellen saw that his face was unnaturally white. "Ellen, are you all right?"
"I'm fine, Sam. This man --"
"He's a murderer." Sam grabbed her and held her tight against him. "My God, I've never been so scared in my life!"
There was a whoosh of air, heralding the arrival of Superman, but held tightly in Sam's arms, Ellen barely noticed.
"Daddy, are there any other stories about Oz?" Jonny wanted to know, as Clark closed the book. The Wizard of Oz was finished at last, and both his younger sons had groaned over the fact that Dorothy had returned to live in Kansas and left the fairyland behind.
"As a matter of fact, yes," he told them. "They're at your grandparents' place in Kansas. Your grandma read them to me when I was a little boy."
"Could you ask Superman to bring us the next one?" Jimmy asked, eagerly.
"Well, I guess I could," Clark said. "I'll do it the next time I see him. Now, you two settle down and go to sleep. Jonny has school, tomorrow."
"I can't wait until school's out," Jonny said. "Then we get to stay up later."
"Well, right now, I have a little work to get done," Clark said, "and I want your mommy to get some rest, tonight." He leaned over for good night kisses. "Night, guys."
"Night, Daddy," Jimmy said.
"Night," Jonny echoed. "Don't forget the night light."
"I wouldn't forget that." Clark snapped on the little wall light, shaped like Superman, and turned off the overhead light. "Go to sleep, now."
In the living room a few moments later, Lois was fidgeting, restlessly. "Has the clock stopped, or something? What time is it?"
Replacing the book on its shelf, he glanced at his watch. "Five after eight. Your mom and dad should be here pretty soon."
Lois rolled sideways on the sofa. "And here I am looking like some kind of prehistoric polliwog," she said.
"Lois, you look exactly like what you are," Martha said. "The mother-to-be of a set of triplets."
"Yeah, but this is kind of a special occasion," Lois said. She glanced at the drawn curtains, as if to assure herself that no one outside could see in. "It's not every day that you -- well, you know."
"Yeah." Clark forced a smile. "I know we can trust your parents, but I guess I still feel a little nervous about it. Still, it's the right thing to do."
"Yes," Martha said, suddenly. "It is."
"I just hope Mother can take the shock, after what happened today," Lois said.
"Your mom was incredible this afternoon, honey," Clark said. He sat down on the edge of the sofa and slipped a large hand around hers. "She's tougher than anybody gave her credit for. After what she did, I guess I can see where you get it. We should have told both of them a long time ago." He grimaced. "On the other hand, telling people about this isn't what I do best."
The doorbell rang. Clark swallowed, got to his feet and resolutely squared his shoulders. "I guess this is it."
Sam and Ellen were standing close together at the door when he opened it, and he saw Sam's arm protectively around his wife's waist. Sam had been shaken by the events of the afternoon, he realized, perhaps more than Ellen was. By the curb, he could see the Mercedes with two minor dents in the grillwork. There had been a time when Sam would have been upset at the damage to his car but this afternoon, when Superman had arrived to apprehend the man who had stalked Candy Valenzuela for weeks and had tried to kill Ellen Lane, Sam had shrugged off the scratches and dents without a blink. "That's what insurance is for," he'd said. "Are you *sure* you're all right, honey?"
Ellen had assured him several times that she was, and seemed rather surprised by his concern.
Now, however, she appeared to have adapted to the new attitude on her husband's part, and even seemed to be enjoying it.
"Come in," Clark invited. "How are you this evening, Ellen?"
"I'm fine," Ellen said. "It's not often that I'm given credit for stopping a serial killer."
"Reporters have been calling all evening," Sam said. "We've had four book offers, so far, two different talk shows want Ellen to appear as a guest, a magazine wants to do a photo feature on the apartment, and some network was trying to talk her into consulting on a TV movie about the whole thing. I finally turned off the phone. These people are insane."
Clark found himself chuckling at the incredulous expression on his father-in-law's face. "Well, they smell money," he said. "People love it when a bad guy is brought down by his intended victim. Come on in before somebody spots you."
The stepped into the small entryway, and Ellen held up a hand. "Clark," she said, "I wanted to say something before I lose my nerve."
"Oh?" He paused, slightly surprised, and as an afterthought, closed and locked the door.
"I wanted to apologize to you. I was out of line for saying the things I did, and I'm sorry. Can you forgive me?"
Clark found himself gaping slightly at her and had to consciously close his mouth.
"Sam and Lois -- and both CJ and Marta -- told me that I was wrong. If I can't take their word for it, I can't believe anyone," Ellen said. "I should have listened to them. If I had, this thing today might not have happened."
"And Roderick Wilkinson might have killed Candy Valenzuela," Clark said. "You may have saved her life, Ellen. Of course I can forgive you. It was partly my fault, too. That's the reason Lois and I asked you and Sam over, tonight. We should have explained this a long time ago."
Sam's eyebrows went up a fraction. Clark held the inner door for them and followed them into the living room.
"Hello, Martha," Sam said.
Martha Kent smiled at them and glanced at Clark, but said nothing.
"Please, sit down," Clark said. He firmly quelled his nervousness. It was odd, how he hadn't felt nervous telling this to Wyatt Dillon -- on the other hand, Wyatt had pretty much figured it out ahead of time.
Sam and Ellen took the love seat. Ellen looked at Lois. "How are you feeling?"
"Much better, once I knew you were safe," Lois said. "Fortunately, I was able to get hold of Clark when I heard you scream, over the phone. He'd been looking for you. I was afraid we were too late."
"I didn't realize you were looking for me, too," Ellen said, turning to Clark. "I suppose you got hold of Superman."
"That's what I was going to explain," Clark said, firmly. "Lois and I talked it over, and we both decided that we needed to tell you the truth. We should have told you years ago, but I'm not good at telling anyone about this. Even Lois figured it out for herself."
Ellen started to speak, but Lois interrupted. "First, you have to know that you can't tell anyone about this. It's a dangerous secret; if anyone who shouldn't finds out, it could pretty much wreck our lives, and yours, and the lives of anyone else close to us. And, if you think the media attention you're getting right now is bad, this would be a thousand times worse."
Ellen glanced uncertainly at Sam. Clark saw him squeeze her hand. "Go on."
Lois looked at Clark. "Honey?"
Clark swallowed, and took a deep breath, then another one. "This is harder than I thought it was going to be."
"I know," Lois said.
Clark closed his eyes, opened them and began to spin in place. When he stopped, standing before Sam and Ellen in his colorful costume, he felt incredibly exposed. He folded his arms and looked Ellen Lane directly in the eyes. "This is what we weren't telling you and Sam. We should have, but as I said, telling people about myself isn't something I'm good at doing. The only other persons that I've ever told were CJ and Marta, and that was because I didn't have a choice."
Superman. Her son-in-law was Superman.
Ellen stared back at the super hero, trying to re-arrange her thoughts a second time in one day and wondering why she wasn't more shocked. Even after having seen the transformation, right in front of her, it was difficult to take in, but perhaps it was something of an anticlimax after the earlier events of the day. Clark looked larger and much more intimidating in this role, but in his eyes she could see a hint of anxiety, and that suddenly made him human again.
She looked at Lois, lying on the couch, and saw the anxiety in her face as well. Her daughter had carried a torch for the Man of Steel for nearly two years, and had married her reporting partner in the end. But, she had married her dream man, after all. Her respect for her daughter rose a notch. Being Superman's wife couldn't be easy. It made being the wife of a doctor sound simple.
"Well," she said, finally, "I guess that explains a lot. I always wondered why Superman didn't come to your wedding."
"I need to apologize to both of you," Superman said. Somehow his voice was deeper and more authoritative than it had been as Clark. "We didn't tell you, and we should have. Trusting you was never an issue, though. I guess both of us were afraid of the danger it would put you in -- and there's the fact, as I said before, that telling anyone about this is something I have trouble doing. I'm sorry. I hope you can forgive me."
"I guess," Ellen said, slowly, "this explains why Superman always shows up conveniently when you're in trouble, Lois. It makes me feel a little better about that, at least." She turned back to her Kryptonian son-in-law. "What did you mean, you didn't have a choice about telling CJ and Marta?"
"They're beginning to develop super powers," Lois said. "CJ is a Kryptonian, and a relative of Clark's. The whole thing is too complicated to even try to go into, but we had to tell both of them so they wouldn't accidentally hurt someone. We'll have to tell Jonny, Jimmy and these three eventually, too ..." She patted her middle. "But not yet."
Super powers, Ellen thought. Her grandchildren were going to have Superman's powers. Suddenly, a number of things began to make sense.
"That was how CJ overheard us, the other night," Sam said. "He has super hearing."
"And, so does Marta," Ellen said. "I'm glad to have that cleared up, at least." She eyed Clark, thoughtfully. He still looked worried. "I guess if you can forgive me, I can forgive you, Cl -- Superman. It's only fair."
His expression relaxed. "Thanks, Ellen."
"I have to admit," she said, "that I didn't expect to hear this, when Sam said you'd invited us over, tonight. I was prepared to accept on faith that you weren't doing what I thought you might be doing -- but this is a lot better. At least, now I'll know where you're going when you make a stupid excuse and take off. Really, Lois, you ought to think of some convincing reasons for him to leave. Even Candy Valenzuela at your office thinks they're lame. She just thinks you have some kind of arrangement with Superman and that he's giving you exclusive interviews."
"She does?" Clark asked.
"She and I had a private talk this afternoon. She's a good person, and she gave you a pretty favorable personal recommendation."
"She called you 'Mr. Straight-arrow'. After I thought about it, I realized it just seemed to fit."
Martha laughed. "Maybe you, Lois and I should get together and make a list with more original excuses for him," she suggested. "Between us, we ought to be able to come up with some good ones."
"That's not a bad idea," Sam said. He looked at Clark's face and laughed. "Relax, Superman. You should know who the real bosses are in our family."
"Yeah," Superman said. "I figured that out quite a few years ago."
Upstairs, Clark heard the sound of a door opening, and an instant later Jimmy's voice spoke from the direction of the stairs. "Superman? Did my daddy ask you about the Oz books?"
"Yes, he did, Jimmy," Clark said. "And if your grandmother says it's okay, I'll fly out to her farm tomorrow and ask your grandfather to let me bring one back for your dad to read to you."
"Jimmy," Lois said. "Why aren't you in bed?"
"I'm thirsty," Jimmy informed her. "I'm getting a drink."
"Then get it and go right back to bed."
"Yes, Mommy." Clark heard his youngest son's footsteps as he traversed the distance to the upstairs bathroom. He drew a long, relieved breath.
"Well," he said, "can I get anyone some coffee?"
There were nods all around, and he turned to make his way into the kitchen. When the door swung shut, he made a quick change into his regular clothes, picked up the Pyrex coffee pot and set it on the tray with the coffee cups and coffee cake that he had prepared a short time earlier. The door opened behind him.
"Can I help, Clark?" Ellen asked.
"Thanks," he said. "Why don't you bring the dessert plates? I sort of ran out of room on the tray."
She smiled and picked up the stack. "Clark, I wanted to say again that I'm sorry for thinking what I did."
He started to answer, but she held up a hand. "I'm not an easy person to deal with -- I know that. And you've always been a gentleman to me, even when I must have irritated you terribly. I appreciate what you've told Sam and me. I know it wasn't an easy thing for you to do, but now I can stop worrying about Lois and the children -- at least, when it comes to her marriage."
Clark gave a soft laugh. "I'm glad you added that last part. Even Superman worries about her, sometimes, even though she's cut back on a lot of the riskier stuff. I see where she gets it, though. You gave Superman a case of déjà vu, today."
She cocked her head at him. "Do you always talk about yourself in the third person?"
"All the time," he admitted. "Sorry. Mom and Lois are always after me about that, too."
"I guess I'll get used to it," she said. "I have a lot of questions to ask you."
He eyed her warily. "Okay ... I guess."
"Oh, not tonight," she said. "I think all of us have had enough for tonight. But don't think I'm letting you off the hook."
"Wouldn't dream of it," he said, wondering what he'd let himself in for.
"Tomorrow will be soon enough," Ellen said. "It will give me time to think of some good ones."
Naturally, Clark thought. Now he knew where Lois got her curiosity, too. He backed out the door with the tray, holding it open with his heel for Ellen to follow him. She did so, and preceded him into the living room.
"There is one thing I want to know, though," Ellen said, as he set the tray down on the coffee table. "How *did* Lois figure it out?"