The Hottest Team in Town
By Nan Smith
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. Part of this story contains scenes and dialogue from "Never Ending Battle" and "The Foundling". Any dialogue from those episodes, or any other episode of the series that may appear in this story is hereby credited to the writers of "Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman". Any new characters, scenes, dialogue and the story itself belong to me.
Clarification note: In the television series, the second richest man in the world was variously identified in two different episodes as Albert Chow of Hong Kong (Requiem For a Superhero) and Arthur Chow (Illusions of Grandeur). I attribute this to continuity glitches between the writers. For the purpose of removing confusion, I have combined the names to produce Albert Arthur Chow, who plays a small but significant part in the story.
This is the sequel to Buried Secrets. Superman has made his debut, brought Jason Trask to justice and discovered his origins, but the City of Metropolis still doesn't know much about its new superhero. And, of course, there's still Lex Luthor ...
The Hottest Team in Town
By Nan Smith
"Olsen!" Perry White barked. "Where are those blow-ups of Superman?"
Jimmy turned, clutching the armload of papers against his chest. "Lab's backed up. Turnaround might be a couple of hours."
"Turnaround!" Perry nearly wailed. "Great shades of Elvis! What are we, the Daily Planet or second stringers from the Weehawken Gazette?"
Jimmy cringed. Perry whirled toward Lois, who was standing with several other members of the newsroom, all of them looking over the shoulders of an artist, who was working industriously with a pencil and sketchpad.
"How's that sketch coming? And how come you don't have any close-ups of Superman, Lois? You interviewed him!"
"My camera was out of film!" she said, over her shoulder.
"Aaarrgh!" Perry threw his hands in the air. "Okay, staff meeting tomorrow morning at six!" He pinned Jimmy with an icy glare. "With blowups!" He yanked open the door to his office, entered and slammed it behind him.
Lois glanced after him, carefully controlling her expression, and then back at the drawing. "No, no, no! The color's wrong!" she said. "And his eyes are more almond-shaped."
"You said 'brown'," the man said.
The "ding" of the elevator announced its arrival, and she glanced over her shoulder to see Clark emerge. She turned her attention back to the sketch and shook her head. "Not brown brown."
Out of the corner of her eye she saw him coming across the Pit toward her. A little devil urged her to make the next comment. "Not dull, insipid mud brown, like Clark's. No offense, Clark," she threw over her shoulder as he arrived beside her.
His eyebrows went up. "Mud?"
"Bedroom eyes," Cat said.
"What do you know about it?" Lois asked, unreasonably annoyed. "You've never even met him!"
"I saw the photos you took when he saved the bus. I know bedroom eyes when I see them."
"From that far away?" Lois rolled her eyes.
"Hey," Jimmy said. "If he is an alien, maybe he doesn't get the old ... you know, itch."
Was it her imagination, or was Clark's neck turning red?
"Mmmm," Cat almost purred. "One way to find out."
"A possible visitor from another planet arrives on Earth and all you can think of is hauling him off to your lair to try him out?" Lois demanded.
"Test drive, Lois," Cat said, unperturbed. "A couple of hours behind the wheel, I'd know for sure if we're talking import or domestic."
Lois rolled her eyes again, reminding herself that Cat could make all the advances she liked to either Clark or Superman, but she'd get precisely nowhere. She bent to look more closely at the face portrayed on the pad. It did look something like Superman, but the resemblance was only incidental.
"No!" she said, resolutely not looking at Clark. "The features are too coarse. Think noble. Think ... Greek god."
Clark made a faint choking noise.
The man looked skeptically up at her. "A Greek god?"
"For example, the chin," she pursued, keeping her face straight with an effort. "It's square but not plain. The chin of a man who stands for something."
"Like Clark's," the man said.
She still resolutely didn't look at Clark. "This is Superman we're talking about. Not some Tom, Dick or -- "
"You know," Clark broke in, "he didn't seem that special to me. Except for the flying and the uniform, he could have been any ordinary guy."
"Ordinary?" Lois said. Now she did look at him. "Jealousy is very unbecoming, Clark."
For all his bored expression, his dark eyes were dancing. "Why would I be jealous?"
Cat sidled up to him. "Mmm. No reason I can see. That offer of dinner is still open."
"Nope," Lois said. "He and I have ... work to do, tonight."
Cat smirked and raised an eyebrow. "Now who's jealous?"
Lois deliberately ignored her.
Leaving the Planet some twenty minutes later, Clark held Lois's coat while she slipped her arms into the sleeves. "'Mud'?" he asked again. "'Radiant'? 'Greek god'? Are you sure we're talking about Superman?"
"Don't get a swelled head, Charlie," she told him in a low voice, digging an elbow into his ribs.
"Wouldn't dream of it," he said. "I got hold of Josef Carlin, by the way. It turns out that the flight to Chicago was a business trip. He didn't give any details, but apparently it involved the representatives of Mr. Albert Chow of Hong Kong."
"The second richest man in the world," Clark told her, his voice deliberately low. "He has business interests everywhere."
"That Albert Chow?" she said as she preceded him up the ramp toward the elevator. "Now I'd say that's a really interesting coincidence."
"I thought so. If it is a coincidence. You know, if our friend wants to get his hands on a controlling interest in Carlin's company, and Carlin were thinking of selling his shares to Chow, it might make it urgent to get rid of him."
"The thought had occurred to me," Lois said, keeping her voice low, as well. "But is it likely that he would commit murder just to get control of another relatively small company? He has dozens." She glanced casually around the newsroom, trying to determine if anyone was paying any attention to them, but no one seemed to be.
They had decided the previous day that Lex Luthor's name would not be brought up in connection with the current investigation, and impressed Jimmy with the importance of the safety measure by showing him the bug that Clark had found in Lois's apartment.
"He's not sure that he's safe, yet," Clark had pointed out. "We're pretty sure he was behind that second guy who tried to kill Lois, but if we aren't suspicious, it's safer for him to leave us alone. We have to make sure he thinks he's fooled us."
Jimmy had agreed. "I'll go along with that. I don't want anyone trying to kill me, either. My lips are sealed."
The thought that he might have someone keeping an eye on them had also occurred to Lois. So far nothing had seemed out of the way, but a spy wasn't likely to be obvious, so she and Clark had been alert to the possibility ever since.
"More like a couple of hundred," Clark said now. He also surveyed the newsroom, as the bell that announced the arriving elevator sounded. "How many other companies has he got hold of in a similar way? Did you read Jimmy's research?"
"Some of it," Lois said. "You're right. I'd say that to him, no company is really minor. Each one seems to be an important conquest in its own right."
The elevator doors opened and he let her enter first. "Exactly," he said. "It's as much a contest of power as it is the acquisition of a company. It almost seems like the contest is more important than the actual company. And, a lot of them seem to have come his way through a convenient death, or a sudden disaster that caused the stock to plummet so he could buy the investors out, or some sort of bad luck. It might be that we'd find out some of that bad luck wasn't luck at all if we dug into it. Just like it would have been this time, if it hadn't been for Superman."
"I think that's the next step," Lois said. "Jimmy can get started on it in the morning. He can check into the Carlin/Chow thing at the same time. If anybody can find anything, it's Jimmy. And, tonight, I've got that dinner date with Lex. Good thing Cat didn't know that, or you'd have had more trouble getting out of dinner with her."
"Yeah." Clark didn't look particularly enthused about the subject, but he didn't say so. "Superman will be waiting around, nearby, though. Don't think he won't."
"I'm counting on it," she said. "So what about Carlin? Did he go on to Chicago, or what?"
"The accident interfered with his plans," Clark said. "Apparently, the meeting's been rescheduled. He didn't say when."
"So he's still in danger."
"I didn't tell him that, but yeah, probably." Clark hesitated. "He wasn't too specific about when, though. I got the feeling he was being careful."
"Because he knows he's in danger, or just on general business principles?"
Clark shrugged. "I don't know. He may know more about his business partner than he lets on. On another front," he continued, "Jimmy gave me the list of numbers Dr. Baines called in the weeks before she died. I haven't had a chance to look at it yet, but he says some of them match the ones Barbara Trevino called. Now he's trying to find out who the numbers belong to."
"It'll be interesting to find out if they match any of his companies," Lois said.
"You know, I'm going to be surprised if there isn't a connection," Clark said.
"So am I," Lois admitted.
The elevator slid to a stop on the second floor and Ralph Finkelstein boarded. He gave Lois a once over and looked sideways at Clark. "You and Lois through for the day?" he inquired, nudging Clark with an elbow.
Clark moved away from him. "I'm going to be sanding and staining the cabinets in my apartment this evening," he said. That seemed about the dullest project he could think of. In actuality, his apartment was completely cleaned and renovated, and he had moved in his furniture the night before.
Lois didn't even deign to answer. The elevator stopped on the first floor and Ralph exited into the lobby, whistling. They continued on to the basement.
"There's probably going to come a time before long that I'm going to kill Ralph when he makes one of his insinuations," Lois said. "I know he's inexperienced, but he ought to at least know the rules about sexual harassment. I can't figure out why Perry hired him. One of these days he's going to get the Planet in legal trouble with a harassment lawsuit, or something."
"He's some kind of in-law of Perry's wife," Clark said.
"How do you know?"
"I overheard Perry muttering about him under his breath when no one was in his office. She apparently talked Perry into hiring Ralph."
"I guess that explains it. Sort of. Well, Perry needs to have a talk with him about Planet business versus personal business, or he's going to cause a problem."
"I think Perry knows that," Clark said. "I don't particularly like the rumors that he's been spreading about you and me, either."
"Neither do I!"
"Would you like to come up for a few minutes?" Lois asked, as she slammed the driver's door.
"Sure," Clark said. "I was going to ask. I wanted to at least do a sweep of your apartment for more bugs, just in case."
"I hadn't thought of that," Lois admitted. "It's kind of creepy having to watch my back every second of the day." She flashed him a grin. "Of course, with you around, it's a lot easier than it would be, otherwise."
"I'll just be glad when we get to the bottom of this whole thing," Clark said. "It's hard not to let people know what our real relationship is. Dodging Cat isn't as easy as it looks."
"If only you weren't so darned pretty," Lois said, teasingly. "On the other hand, there's nothing you can do about being male, and that's her main criterion."
"Lois ..." he protested.
"On the other, other hand, I prefer you being male, myself," she added, as if he hadn't spoken. "Come on. Once we know my apartment is clear, we can at least use a few minutes in private to take advantage of our relationship."
Clark apparently had no argument with this logic, for he followed her up the steps of 1058 Carter Avenue, smiling. But the smile disappeared when the elevator deposited them on the fifth floor of Lois's apartment house. Lois saw him cock his head and then lower his glasses. "There's someone in your place, Lois. Young, dark hair, sort of petite. She's making coffee in your kitchen and there are two suitcases in your guest room."
A terrible premonition swept over her. "Oh, no."
"There's only one other person who has the keys to my place besides you and the manager. Lucy."
"My scatterbrained sister. The one I told you about. She dropped out of New Troy State and joined some cult out in Northern California to 'find' herself. I haven't heard from her for six months." Lois marched to her door and turned the knob. Sure enough, Lucy had neglected to re-lock anything when she had entered the apartment. The door opened easily and Lois stepped inside, pulling Clark with her. "Lucy!"
Her sister stepped out of the kitchen, looking surprised. "How did you know I was here?"
Oops! How had she known, short of admitting that her partner's x-ray vision had warned her?
"Mervin Tracewski saw you when you came in. You left my door unlocked," Lois said. "You can't do that here, even if that's the way they work it out in California."
"Oh. We didn't have any locks at the commune," Lucy said, absently, but her attention had immediately fastened on Clark. "I guess I forgot. Who's this?"
"This is my reporting partner at the Planet. Clark Kent, Lucy Lane." She continued, without giving either a chance to acknowledge the introduction. "What are you doing here, Lucy? The last I heard from you, you were still in California."
"Oh. I got tired of it," Lucy said, casually. "I figured I'd better come back and finish college. I'm enrolling for the semester that starts in January, but I don't have any place to live until then, so I figured you wouldn't mind if I moved back into your spare room in the meantime. Why?"
"Oh," Lois said. "Well, I wish you'd warned me, that's all."
"Sorry. I tried to call the other night, but you weren't here, and your telephone answering machine wasn't on, so I just decided I'd tell you when I got here." Lucy had turned to look at Clark again. "Since when have you ever worked with a partner, anyway?"
"Since this last week," Lois said. "Have you been reading any news recently?"
"Oh yeah, I think I remember seeing something you wrote about a bunch of government UFO nuts," Lucy said. "Did you work with Lois on that?" She moved forward until she was standing right in front of him. "Glad to meet you."
Automatically, Clark extended a hand. "Likewise. He glanced at his partner. "Well, since your sister is here, I guess I'll pass on the coffee, Lois. You probably have some catching up to do anyway, and you still have to get ready for that interview this evening. Nice to meet you, Lucy."
"Uh, yeah. Just a minute, Luce." She followed Clark out the door and shut it behind her. "Darn!" she said, softly. "I guess I'll see you later."
He nodded. "I checked your place, by the way. No bugs."
"Thanks," she said. Giving a quick glance around to be sure there were no observers, she stood on tiptoe and kissed him lightly on the lips. "Until tonight, then."
After he had disappeared into the stairway, she listened and a few instants later heard a distant sonic boom. Turning, she re-entered the apartment.
"Wow," Lucy said. "What a dreamboat! Are you and Clark dating, or anything?"
"Clark is my reporting partner," Lois said.
"Still the same old Lois," her sister said. "What's this thing you're going to tonight?"
"I'm having dinner with Lex Luthor," Lois said.
"You're kidding! Lex Luthor? The billionaire?"
"Lucy, it's an interview," Lois said. "I've been after the first one-on-one interview with him for months. You know that. He's sending a car for me at eight, so I'd better start getting ready. I'll probably be out late. I'll try not to disturb you when I come in."
"Oh, you won't disturb me," Lucy said. "I won't even be here. I've got a date too."
Why was she surprised? "How long have you been in town?" Lois asked.
"Since this afternoon," Lucy said. "I called Greg for a ride from the airport, and he asked me out to a party with some of his friends tonight. I'll probably be back by three or four."
Lois restrained the urge to roll her eyes. "I'm going to take a shower."
Approaching his apartment from the air, Superman, as he always did, checked his place of residence before coming in through the bedroom window to be certain that there were no witnesses. Judging by the nosiness exhibited by his apartment's manager, it was possible that the man might be snooping around the premises just to check up on his newest tenant. He didn't want to burst in on him unexpectedly as Superman and give the man something to really think about.
It was a good thing that he had taken the elementary safety measure, he was thinking, a few split instants later. His apartment did indeed have a visitor, although it wasn't Floyd McDavitt. In fact, it wasn't anyone he ever recalled seeing before, and he certainly didn't have any business in Clark Kent's home.
He was a teenager, dressed in mismatched and somewhat ragged garments, and was moving quickly and quietly around the apartment, collecting every small item of value that he could lay his hands on, depositing each one in a big paper bag. A petty thief, Clark decided. Quickly and quietly, he landed on his balcony, changing to Clark Kent as he did so, and stepped into the apartment.
The boy heard him as he did so and, faster than Clark expected, darted out the door and ran. If Clark hadn't been able to move literally faster than a speeding bullet, the young thief might have escaped. As it was, he intercepted him at the corner.
The boy tried to jerk away, but Clark held on, careful not to hurt him. On closer examination, he saw that the kid was skinny, as if he hadn't eaten well for some time.
"Hey! Take it easy! I won't hurt you!"
The teenager must have realized that he wasn't going to be able to break free, because he went suddenly still in Clark's grasp. Clark removed the paper bag from his hands. "This belongs to me," he said, quietly.
His captive stared sullenly at him. Clark kept a hand on his arm, looking him over. He might be fifteen or sixteen, Clark judged, and still had some growing to do. He wore a thin T-shirt and battered jeans, and in spite of the winter weather, his only concession to the cold was the checked flannel shirt that he wore over them. Clark's eyes narrowed as his super-hearing picked up the sound of his stomach growling. It might have been a while since the boy had eaten.
"You gonna turn me over to the cops?" The sullen, swaggering tone was a cover, he realized suddenly. In the question was fear.
"What's your name?" Clark asked.
The boy didn't answer. Clark looked at him, thoughtfully. "I probably ought to turn you over to the police," he said, and heard his captive's heart rate speed up. "Why don't you tell me why I shouldn't?"
"Come on, mister! You got your stuff back. Why don't you just let me go?"
Clark stared at the smudged, dirty face. The kid's cheeks were sunken, and his stomach growled again.
"When did you eat last?" he asked, suddenly.
"Why do you care?"
"Look, if you answer me truthfully, I might let you go," Clark said, meeting his eyes squarely. "Lie to me, and I'll hand you over to the police without another word. When did you eat last?"
The boy looked down at his shoes. "Yesterday."
"Where are your parents?"
The boy glared angrily up at him. "You don't want to know about my parents. They dumped us when --"
"'Us'?" Clark said. "There's somebody else?"
"Mister, you gotta let me go!"
Clark stared at the boy, frowning. "What's your name?" he asked again.
"Jack! Are you happy, now? Come on ..."
"You're watching out for somebody, aren't you?"
"My brother! If you turn me over to the cops he won't have nobody to look after him!"
"Where are you going?"
Jack's expression closed up. Clark regarded him for a long moment, and he could tell the boy was holding his breath. "Okay," he said, finally. He reached in his pocket and removed a business card. "Look, here's my phone number. If you need help, call me."
Jack accepted the card and stuck it in his back pocket. Clark hesitated and removed his jacket. "Put this on. You're freezing." At the other's hesitation, he thrust the jacket into his hands. "Here, it's yours. And take this. Get yourself some food." He followed the jacket with a twenty-dollar bill. "Go on."
Slowly, Jack accepted the money, a wary expression on his face. Clark released his arm and stood back. "You're free to go."
Jack cast him another confused look, turned and ran.
In an instant, Superman was in the air, watching the fugitive from above. The boy ducked down a littered alley, emerged onto a back street, doubled back through a second alley and a few moments later was squeezing through a broken door into an abandoned building.
"Jack?" He could hear a younger voice speaking, and his former prisoner's voice replied.
"Yeah, it's me. How're you feeling, Denny?"
"Better. Is there anything to eat?" The voice belonged to another boy, this one about twelve or thirteen, Clark thought.
"Yeah. I'm gonna go get something. You stay here and I'll be right back."
Floating silently a hundred feet in the air, Clark watched as the teenager squeezed out the door again, his destination obviously the nearest fast food establishment. He waited, watching the younger boy until Jack returned with a hamburger and fries for both of them, then he turned and headed back to his apartment. He probably should alert the police to their presence, he reflected, but that seemed almost like a betrayal. He'd keep an eye on them, he decided, and try to figure out what he could do to help -- without involving the authorities, at least for the moment.
A glance at the clock on one wall, when he walked into his apartment, told him that Lois would be on her way to Luthor's penthouse within twenty minutes. Quickly, he returned the pilfered items to their places and locked the doors and windows, although that seemed not to have done much good in the case of a petty thief like Jack. Seconds later, he was on his way to hover unseen above 1058 Carter Avenue. Lois wasn't going on her dinner date alone.
The dinner was delicious, Lois thought. Not that she would have expected anything else, considering the quality of help that Lex Luthor could hire. She wondered where her partner was. Glancing out the big picture window at the lights of Metropolis far below, she somehow knew that Charlie wasn't far away, although she had seen no sign of him since he'd left her apartment a couple of hours ago. It was almost as if she could sense his presence somewhere nearby.
The winter sky was clear tonight. The light pollution hid all but the brightest stars, but a half-moon shone down with milky brilliance. Now and then, a little shower of snow, blown from the roof by a gust of winter wind, fell past the window.
The billionaire was smiling at her across the table, his handsome face illuminated by the flickering candles. She smiled back. "The view is wonderful from here, Lex."
He nodded. "I often eat in this spot, looking down at m ... the city. All of the people ... all the possibilities ... It's an awesome thought sometimes, even for me."
"All the people or all the possibilities?" she asked.
"Both." He regarded her with a quizzical expression. "I find people fascinating. The potential of every human being for good or ill. You, for instance ... I've read your work. I envisioned you quite differently, you know. I realize now that I had fallen victim to mundane stereotyping. It astonished me to discover that you were the Lois Lane who has established such a formidable journalistic reputation. It has certainly taught me a lesson I shan't soon forget."
"And what was that?" she asked.
"That age is not necessarily a prerequisite for wisdom, nor does youth automatically preclude brilliance. I've read more of your work since we met at the Christmas Ball. I must admit that I'm thoroughly impressed."
"Thank you," Lois said. "A lot of men don't seem to understand that." She took a sip of the delicate white wine that accompanied the last course. "Tell me, what drives a man like you? What do you strive for?"
"Ah, yes. The interview." He leaned back in his chair. "Pleasure, Ms. Lane. The pursuit of pleasure."
He too sipped the wine. "Does that surprise you?"
"I would have guessed that you'd say 'power'."
"Power is a means, not an end." Luthor leaned forward. "Those without power know very little pleasure."
"And achieving power gives you pleasure?"
"Exactly." He nodded. "Very astute of you. Not many persons realize that. I see I chose well in agreeing to let you interview me."
"I've seen your unauthorized biographies, of course," Lois said.
"All five of them?" Luthor said, with a smile. "Let me tell you something, Ms. Lane. Every one of them had it wrong."
He reached forward and took her hand. "I know that to you, I'm merely a scoop, another feather in your cap. You wanted an interview, and I understand that. I rarely agree to interviews. I made an exception for you." He paused and his smile widened a little. "And not for the reason you might think. Not because you are a beautiful young woman. That wouldn't speak well for either of us. Very well, let me tell you about the man, the real Lex Luthor." He leaned closer. "My talent in life is not making money, or juggling companies. It's character assessment. I sense things about you. Possibilities. Potentials. You have the intelligence, spirit and vision to transcend the mundane." He paused. "And just so there are no misunderstandings ... you are beautiful."
Lois smiled a little and lowered her eyes in automatic response to his words. Any woman would be charmed by the compliments he was paying her, and he would expect no less. Lex Luthor was incredibly smooth, she thought. He had undoubtedly hired an assassin to kill her a few days ago. If not for Charlie, she would have been dead, but here he was, flattering her and flirting with her. And it was up to her to let him think that she was completely deceived.
The slender Hispanic man who had served their dinner approached. "Would you care for dessert?"
Lois shook her head. "No, I never have dessert."
"Never?" Luthor raised an eyebrow.
"You don't know what you're missing," he said, clearly implying something other than part of the meal, but he didn't press the point. "Shall we walk on the terrace for a few minutes?"
Lois hesitated. "I need to get home to write up my interview for tomorrow."
"Just for a few minutes," Luthor said with a smile. "It will be warm enough. I have heating lamps set up there for my convenience."
"Well ... all right." She let the servant pull back her chair and stood up. Lex Luthor took her arm, guiding her toward the French windows that gave onto the terrace.
He'd been correct, she saw, as they emerged out into the open. The air about them was comfortably warm, despite the occasional flurries of snow that still fell from above. In the background, soft music began to play, and Luthor bowed formally to her. "May I have this dance, Ms. Lane?"
She nodded, and let him sweep her into a waltz. It had a dreamlike feeling, as the billionaire guided her around the terrace under the stars. He smiled down at her. "I read your other interview of the week, you know."
"My other interview?"
"Yes. With the newest resident of Metropolis. The mysterious Superman spoke to you, although no one else has been able to get more than a few words from him. I knew when I read it that you must be unusual, and I must admit that it influenced my decision to allow you to interview me."
"I was just in the right place at the right time," Lois said.
"Is he as powerful as they say?"
"I was there when he stopped that bus and saved all those people from being killed," Lois said. "He's promised me a longer interview when he has the time, so maybe we'll learn more, then."
"The very concept of a 'super man' fascinates me," Luthor said. "Where did he come from, what drives him ... I shall look forward to seeing that interview. I'm quite certain that if there is anything more to learn about him, you will learn it."
"I'll certainly try," Lois agreed.
The billionaire said nothing more, but continued to lead her around the floor until the last strains of the waltz died away.
Contrary to her expectations, Lex Luthor accompanied her back to her apartment house and walked her to her door. She was sure that Charlie wouldn't approve of the kiss he gave her before she went inside, but it was necessary for the part she played. Once the door closed behind her, she listened, and faintly heard his footsteps as he retreated down the hall. She scrubbed a hand across her lips.
"I think he was fooled," Clark's voice said from the direction of the window.
She almost jumped. "Char ... Clark, you scared me!"
"Sorry." He parted the curtains and stepped fully into the room, closing the window behind him. "So, what did you think of him?"
"I think he's the slickest con man I've ever met," Lois said.
"So do I," Clark said. "Anyway, I don't think you're in danger from him anymore ... as long as he keeps on thinking that he's got you fooled."
"Let's hope not," Lois said. "It really cramps my style when people are trying to kill me."
He moved up close to her, glancing at the spare bedroom. "Is your sister here?"
"Lucy? She has a date tonight. She said she'd be back around three or four." She rested a hand on his shoulder for balance and bent to remove her shoes. "I've been dying to get these off for hours. My feet are killing me."
He glanced at the items in question. "How do women walk in those without spraining an ankle, anyway?"
"Is that really what you want to talk about right now?" she asked.
"Not really." He took the shoes, set them on the coffee table and tugged her toward the sofa. "Wanna neck?"
She grinned. "Why, Mr. Kent, I thought you'd never ask."
Jack Brown -- at least, Brown was the name that he and Denny were going by these days -- moved quietly through the dimness of Metropolis at night.
Metropolis was never really dark. Even now, at one in the morning, the city was alive with lighted signs advertising the stores and restaurants that did business in the enormous city, but here in this neighborhood, where apartment buildings made up the majority of the structures, it was dimmer than the business district only a few streets away.
The independent gas station on the corner had a convenience store, and that was where the tall skinny guy that he'd been watching for several weeks always went to buy beer. He bought a lot of beer.
The guy was fairly well dressed for this area. The fact that he lived alone in a second floor apartment on the fringes of Suicide Slum would have been a mystery, if Jack hadn't known the real nature of his business.
This guy collected protection money from the businesses in the less well-policed sections of Metropolis, and he had just this afternoon completed his rounds of the West Side.
Jack knew his routine well. Tonight, he would go to the "business district" to the north, to the gambling parlors, strip clubs and other even more questionable night spots that the police officially knew nothing about, in some of the less-reputable areas right on the fringes of the slum. Those were big spots for wealthy citizens of Metropolis who wished to gamble and party, and indulge in other behavior that was generally frowned upon by the law in the more upscale parts of Metropolis. He would be gone for several hours, making the rounds of the clubs and doing business with the owners. The man worked for The Boss, the man who headed most of the organized crime in the city. Gambling, prostitution, guns, drugs, protection ... The Boss ran his businesses with an iron hand, and you didn't talk about him if you valued your skin. Rumor whispered that the head of the syndicate was a well-respected leader of the community, high in the social circles of the elite of Metropolis, and Jack had a pretty good idea who that was, but you didn't say it aloud if you valued your skin.
Jack generally stayed away from all that stuff. If you were insignificant enough, they left you alone, and he had no intention of bringing himself to the attention of those who served The Boss. He and Denny only needed to amass enough money and then they were leaving Metropolis, never to return. They would set up somewhere in the rural Midwest, where no one was looking for them, where they could avoid the authorities that wanted to drag them back into the foster homes where his brother and he had been separated by faceless bureaucrats, crowded courts and well-meaning social workers. There had been good homes and bad homes, but none of them had allowed the brothers to live together. Denny was all that Jack had left and Jack was all that Denny had. He wasn't going to let the System destroy what remained of their family.
And that was why Jack was following his mark tonight.
He'd been watching the man for weeks, tracking his movements, mapping his schedule. He'd spied on him through the window with a pair of binoculars, not once but on numerous occasions, when he had opened the wall safe to store the receipts of his forays until he could deliver the funds to his contact. The safe wasn't visible through the window, but the mirror on the wall reflected his movements. It had taken Jack three weeks of close observation before he was certain that he had the combination correct. Now, unless something changed radically, tonight was the night for his big score. He and Denny would have enough money to get out of this place, permanently. Once away from the city, all they had to do was to hold out for two more years. Then Jack would be of age, and able to legally present himself as Denny's next of kin. He would be able to hold an actual job and support them both with something better than petty theft. Life might still be hard, but they would have a much better chance than they'd had up until now.
He had been a little worried today, because the guy's routine had varied slightly from his usual one. In between his tour of the little shops and businesses on the West Side and his return to his apartment, he'd taken time to visit Centennial Park and sit feeding the pigeons for half an hour. A second man had joined him for some ten minutes, ostentatiously reading a magazine on the other end of the bench, and then left, leaving behind a small, inconspicuous brown package sitting on the end of the bench.
As Jack had watched, Tall Skinny Guy had set his bag of popcorn down on top of it, and a moment later when he picked it up, the package was also gone. A few minutes later he had distributed the last of the popcorn in the bag to the well-fed birds, tossed the bag into a trash receptacle and strolled casually away.
Since then, however, he had done exactly what he did on every other day. He'd returned to his apartment and placed his day's collection in the safe. Then he'd switched on the TV and tuned in a football game.
Reassured by the resumption of his mark's routine, Jack had gone off to find something that he could sell to get money to feed himself and Denny. That guy -- Clark Kent, according to the card he'd handed Jack -- had caught him, but let him go, not only with a jacket, but with money. The guy was either a real soft touch or he was completely crazy. Jack didn't know how to classify him. The grip he'd had on Jack's arm had been powerful; he figured Kent worked out regularly to be that strong. Body builders weren't usually the understanding sort in Jack's experience. The husband in one of the homes where he'd stayed for a while had been a body builder. He'd been hard on his wife and two kids, and Jack as well. Jack had finally run away from the place and been on the street for a week before the Child Protection people managed to track him down. If Kent was anything like that guy, he wasn't likely to be very forgiving, so Jack tended toward the crazy theory.
Now, with his stomach full for the first time in over a day, Jack was ready to make his move.
Tall Skinny Guy came out of the convenience store with his beer and headed back to his place. Jack followed him at a safe distance. Sure enough, the guy went inside and after a few minutes he saw the apartment lights blossom into life. He could see the guy moving around the apartment and then, a few minutes later, the lights went out again. Jack waited.
The man emerged from the downstairs door gripping a rectangular briefcase-like bag and strode off down the sidewalk toward the more lighted streets, probably going to flag down a cab or something. Jack waited until he had disappeared and for a slow count of one hundred after that. Then, very quietly, he made for the route he'd already mapped out.
He couldn't just walk in the front door. He'd checked that out already. There was a camera in the entrance hall that recorded all the comings and goings of tenants and visitors, and when the guy's safe turned up empty he didn't want his picture to show up on the security camera. But if he came in from the roof, he should avoid that problem.
Jack made his way to the littered alley that ran behind the apartment house. The fire escape was up, of course, but that was no problem. He dragged out the wooden crates that he had stored in the dumpster yesterday. Garbage pickup was Monday morning, so he'd been fairly sure they would be safe. Tomorrow the garbage men would collect the trash and all the evidence would probably be long gone before anybody realized that anything was missing.
Quickly, he piled the crates under the ladder and scrambled onto them. The ladder was still a little above his reach, but he crouched and sprang, catching the lowest rung with one hand.
With a squeak of metal that lifted the hair on his head, the ladder descended. Without wasting time, Jack scrambled up the fire escape toward the roof and the ladder swung up behind him.
On the roof, his other supplies were waiting for him. A potato sack containing cut-up newspapers, and a rope were nestled against one of the ventilators, where he had left them the day before in preparation for this venture. He tied the rope to the metal railing, and gripping the bag in his teeth, he lowered himself toward the window that he had already marked.
It was only a matter of about ten feet, but by the time he made it, his hands were smarting from rope burn and he was breathing hard. If he'd been eating more regularly it would probably have been easier, he thought. Bracing his toes on the windowsill, and gripping the rope tightly with one hand, he bent slowly and tried to open the window.
It wasn't locked; he knew that from observation with the binoculars, but it was stuck. Determinedly, he planted the palm of his hand against the glass and pushed upward. For long, painful and frustrating moments, the window refused to budge, and then, just as he was about to give up, it moved a fraction of an inch.
With renewed determination, he dragged at it with the flat of his hand. It moved upwards another fraction and he was able to hook the tips of his fingers under the bottom edge. From there it was merely a matter of determination, and a few minutes later, he slid into the room.
It had taken longer than he'd expected, but he should still have plenty of time. Taking a few moments to regain his breath, Jack went to the wall where he knew the safe was located. It was concealed by a large painting of a grassy meadow with birds and flowers, in a dingy plastic frame, but Jack paid no attention to the picture, other than to remove it from its nail and set it against the wall.
There was the safe; a square metal door set flush with the wall. It was featureless except for the dial set into its surface. With trembling fingers, he twirled it a few times and slowly dialed the combination.
His fingers shook so hard that he had to dial the combination twice but at last he was reasonably certain that he'd done it right. He tugged on the door, and for one disappointing second he thought it hadn't worked. The door stuck slightly but he pulled harder, and it opened suddenly. Jack found himself looking at a canvas pouch.
Quickly and quietly, he removed the bag from its spot and pulled it open.
Even in the dimness of the unlighted apartment, he could see the money. The pouch was stuffed with rolls of bills held together with rubber bands. Protection money, he thought. This was big-time stuff. If anyone suspected what he had done it could get him killed but the risk would be worth it if it gave Denny and him a new start somewhere else. Slightly breathless from the sight of more money than he had ever seen before, Jack emptied the bag onto the floor and replaced the contents with the pieces of newspaper that he had brought. Then, he stuffed his own sack with the money and tied it shut. It was gratifyingly full when he finished. He was about to replace the now worthless pouch when he saw the little package lying innocently in the very back of the safe.
Why he did it he didn't know, but he reached in and appropriated it.
It wasn't heavy. It was about the size and shape of a small book. He stuffed it inside his shirt, shoved the pouch back into the safe and swung it closed. He was replacing the picture, when he heard the doorknob rattle.
No time to get out the window. Jack grabbed his potato sack and dived for the bathroom. Crouching behind the door, he prayed silently that the guy had simply forgotten something and wouldn't notice the open window.
The door swung open and the lights blazed on.
"Where did you put it?" The voice held a distinct English accent, but he had never heard it before. He scrunched against the wall, praying that the intruder wouldn't think to look in the bathroom.
"I tell you, I don't know what you're talking about." The Tall Skinny Guy's voice answered him. "I wouldn't be stupid enough to doublecross The Boss. I'm not suicidal."
"We already interviewed your accomplice," a second voice, cultured and definitely American, said softly, and its tone made a prickle run across Jack's neck. There was menace in it, and something else, a quality that chilled him far more than the snowy world outside.
"Whoever he is, he's lying!" Tall Skinny Guy said, sounding desperate. "I'm not a fool!"
"Open your safe," the English voice said. "That would be the logical place to store such a treasure."
"Please!" Tall Skinny Guy spoke frantically. "I had nothing to do with it!"
"Well, we can determine that quickly enough," the second voice said. "Open the safe, Joey. Now."
Silence for several seconds, and then Jack heard the faint squeak as the safe door swung open. Holding onto the doorknob in an effort to keep the door as far open as possible, to camouflage his presence behind it, he pressed one eye to the narrow crack where the hinges met the frame, trying to see. English Dude was rummaging around in the wall safe. He removed the canvas bag now containing the newspaper strips and poked around behind it.
"See! It's not here!" Joey said.
"Let's see what you have in the bag, Joey," the English voice said. "Take it out."
Jack remained still, breathing quietly. Once they opened the bag, they were going to discover his substitution.
"Newspaper!" Jack could see more of the man with the English accent, now. He was an older fellow with a narrow face, white hair and a small, closely cut white beard clinging to his chin like a coating of moss. "Planning a doublecross, Joey?"
"No!" Tall Skinny Guy was staring with consternation at the wad of paper strips in English Dude's hand. "You've gotta believe me! I'm not that stupid! Somebody's been here! I've been robbed!"
"Much as I hate to give anyone the benefit of the doubt, Nigel," the American voice spoke again, "I think we may have to. Look."
Jack could see the speaker, now. He was about six feet in height, slender, and wearing a trenchcoat, with a hat pulled down on his head, nearly concealing his light brown, curly hair. In the bright light of the room, however, Jack could see his face, and the image was burned indelibly into his brain. He had seen this man's face before, on the front page of the Daily Planet and other local newspapers. That was Lex Luthor, himself.
All the whispers he had heard concerning the identity of "The Boss" came together in a rush. The rumors had been true. The Boss was Lex Luthor ... and if these men discovered him, he was dead. There was no doubt at all in his mind of that fact.
Luthor was pointing at the window, and the three men crossed the room to examine the evidence: the dangling rope, the fact that it was open on a winter night ...
"There appears to have been a sneak thief," Nigel said. "It was very careless of you, Joey, not to lock your window."
"The catch is busted," Joey mumbled.
"One more error to chalk up in your column," Luthor said. "There is still the matter of Moran's confession. Before he died ..." He paused to let that fact sink in, "he fingered you as the recipient of the diary, Joey. I want it back."
"Sir, he was lying!" Joey said, earnestly. "I'm not real smart, but I'm not a complete idiot! He must be trying to protect whoever he gave it to. I didn't have nothing to do with it!"
Nigel, whoever he was, and Luthor looked at each other for a moment.
"I wonder, sir, if we were remiss in so summarily terminating Moran," Nigel said. "Is it possible that he lied?"
Luthor seemed to consider. "I suppose there is that possibility," he said, at last. He looked at Joey. "Very well, Joey, you're not off the hook yet, but I'm giving you a small reprieve. Use your contacts. Discover who has that diary. And find whoever is responsible for this ..." He glanced at the safe and then at the window. "... Situation. I repeat that. Find them. Your life depends on your success. If I don't have that diary back within a week, you're a dead man. Do you understand?"
"And, Joey," Nigel said, "don't even consider leaving town. Is that very clear?"
"Yes, sir! I'll find out what happened, sir. I promise!"
"Do that." Luthor turned and left the apartment, followed by Nigel.
Joey nearly collapsed into the nearest chair. In the sudden silence of the apartment, his breathing was loud, and Jack consciously kept his own respirations as silent as possible.
Now what was he going to do? Joey would probably decide to look around the apartment within a few minutes and then he would find Jack.
Joey got to his feet and stumbled toward the kitchen alcove. Jack heard him open the refrigerator door and a moment later he returned to drop into the armchair again, a beer in his hand. He took a long drink, and then another one. Jack remained still, watching the man drain the beer can. At least he hadn't started searching the place yet, but he probably would sooner or later, just in the hope that somehow his missing stuff was still here somewhere, and then he would discover Jack. How the heck was he going to get out of here?
There was a window above and behind the toilet, but if he tried to get out that way, Joey would certainly hear him and come to investigate. Besides, he was on the second floor! If he tried to jump, he'd probably break something, if the fall didn't kill him outright.
Joey threw the beer can in the general direction of a trash basket and went back to the kitchen. A few seconds later, he reappeared with another can of beer.
He must be using it to calm his nerves down, Jack surmised. He couldn't actually blame the guy, but if he drank too many of those, he was bound to have to come in here in a little while, anyway. Jack tried to think. How was he going to get out of this?
Joey was on his way back to the fridge again. Jack couldn't recall seeing anyone down a beer that fast, not even his mother, and she'd had a real thing for beer. When he returned from the fridge this time, he had the remaining four beers tucked under his arm. As Jack watched, he downed a third and then half of a fourth.
Joey set the can down on the arm of the chair and stood up. Jack tensed. This was it.
Joey crossed the room to the safe and stood rummaging around in it for nearly a minute, probably hoping that the package wasn't really gone, Jack thought. He picked up the canvas bag and shook it out. The newspaper strips littered the dingy carpet, but of course, nothing else emerged.
Joey returned to the chair, picked up the beer can and gulped down the remaining contents.
Jack held perfectly still, breathing lightly. A plan was beginning to form in his brain. A lot of it would depend on luck, and how well this guy could hold his booze. He'd had four beers in less than ten minutes. That had to have some effect.
Joey ambled toward the bathroom, weaving slightly. Jack tensed. This was really it, this time. As silently as he could, he shifted position. He was only going to have one chance at this. Then, he'd be either free or dead.
The man stepped through the door of the bathroom. Jack rammed the door into him as hard as he could.
There was a squawk and a crash. Jack came out from behind the door, ready to dodge Joey's hands, but the man was on his back on the floor, trying feebly to roll over to hands and knees. In a flash, Jack had leaped over his sprawling body and made a dash for the door of the apartment. He jerked it open and fled, not sure where he was going, but determined to escape. Some instinct made him turn to the right, and he saw the elevator, and beside it, the door to the stairs. He yanked it open, just as Joey emerged into the hall, one hand to his head. Then, he was half-falling down the steps, past a shabbily clad man who ignored him completely. He reached the first floor and burst through the exit, just as the door above him opened. Keeping his face down, he dashed through the small, grimy entranceway, hoping that the camera at the door wouldn't get a good enough picture of him to do Joey and The Boss much good. Then he was out on the sidewalk. He ran for it, dodging down the nearest alley and emerging onto another street. Quickly, he dived into a second alley and ran again.
At last he paused, simply because he couldn't run any farther, and ducked behind a dumpster, trying to catch his breath. For a long time, he simply crouched there in the cold and darkness, listening for the sound of a pursuer, but there was nothing.
"Mm. I still intend to figure out who taught you to kiss like that," Lois said. She leaned against her partner's chest, her head resting on his shoulder.
Clark's arms tightened slightly. "Umm ... native talent," he informed her.
"Uh huh," Lois said, skeptically. "If the guys from your home town could all kiss that way, all the women in the country would be moving to Smallville. Still, I guess it isn't important ... as long as you only practice on me, now."
"I could stand some more practice," Clark said, hopefully.
"Right. Can't let those essential skills get rusty," Lois agreed.
A long silence followed this remark. At last, Lois stirred. "I guess it's getting late," she said, reluctantly.
Clark glanced at the clock sitting on a corner table. "Yeah," he said, with equal reluctance. "I guess you do need to get some sleep. It's past two."
"Some," he said. "I don't need as much as regular people, but I do need at least a couple of hours. Besides, Superman should make an appearance over two or three trouble spots before I turn in."
Lois sighed and slowly extricated herself from his arms. "Yeah, I guess. Besides, Lucy could show up any time. We don't want to let anyone know about us, yet."
"Wouldn't Lucy keep it quiet if you asked her to?"
Lois shrugged. "Maybe, but she's just as likely to tell Mom, and the next thing you know, they'll be talking about it on LNN. Or worse, Mom will be here wanting to know all about you, who your parents are, how much money you make, what kind of prospects you have, and demanding your medical history from the time you were born."
"I hope you're exaggerating," Clark said.
"Maybe a little, but believe me, you don't want to tell Lucy anything about it until we're ready for everyone to know ... and that means, after we've finished this investigation."
"You're right," Clark agreed. "I just don't like sneaking around, though. I want the whole world to know that we're a couple. We are, aren't we?"
She nodded. "Now that I'm over my superstitions, we are. We were before, really. I just didn't want to say it out loud. We'll let our friends know soon enough, Clark -- as soon as we finish with ... him."
He leaned forward and kissed her. "Just so we're clear on that point," he said.
"Oh, we're clear, all right." Lois stood up with him and accompanied him to the door. "Good night, Clark."
"Good night," he said. Another long kiss followed. It was the sound of a key in the lock that alerted Lois to the fact that her sister was back. They almost leaped apart as the fourth and fifth locks were unfastened and the door opened. Lucy stepped inside and gave a faint gasp at the sight of Lois and her partner.
"Oh! I didn't expect you to still be awake!" She glanced questioningly at Clark and her eyebrows went up.
"Clark and I got involved in a discussion about one of our investigations," Lois said. "We didn't notice the time. He was just leaving." She turned to her partner. "Good night, Clark. I'll see you at the Planet, tomorrow."
"Good night, Lois," Clark said. "Good night, Lucy." He stepped out the door and walked quickly down the hallway toward the elevator.
Lucy looked after him and then at Lois. "You're kidding me, right? It's nearly two-thirty in the morning. You mean to tell me he stayed here that long just talking about a story?"
"Yes, I do," Lois said, firmly. "Clark is a professional, Lucy. That's why we work so well together."
"And that's another thing," Lucy said. "I've never seen you work with a partner before -- ever! What's so different about him?"
"Clark is willing to take risks," Lois said. "I've never had a partner who would take the necessary risks before. That's how we broke the Trevino story."
"Hmm," Lucy said, clearly not convinced. "He's one beautiful specimen, that's for sure. I don't see how even you could miss that." She began to remove her coat. "You know sis, if you don't get serious about a guy pretty soon, you're going to be just like Aunt Harriet. She shows up at every wedding at her church, even when she barely knows the bride and groom." She sighed. "I just want you to meet a super guy and live happily ever after."
"Luce, I'm barely twenty-six," Lois said, reflecting that Lucy didn't have any idea just how close she had come to the real situation. "I still have time."
"That's what Aunt Harriet thought and look at her now. She's a lonely old maid. So, how did your date with Lex Luthor go tonight? And did he ask you for another one?"
"It was an interview, Lucy. That's what Clark and I were talking about." Lois began to remove the dress that she had worn to the dinner several hours ago. "I'm going to bed. I'll see you in the morning."
"Lois, could I catch a ride with you this morning?" Lucy asked, as Lois downed her cup of strong breakfast coffee. After her late night, she'd made it as concentrated as she could in an effort to pry her eyelids open. It tasted terrible, but at least it was dissolving the cobwebs from her brain.
She poured herself a second cup and this time added artificial sweetener and skim milk. "Where?"
"Just by the university. If you can drop me across from the entrance, I'll walk to the Administration building, and I can catch a ride home with somebody later."
"Okay." Lois swallowed the liquid and set her coffee cup in the sink. The heavy dose of caffeine was working. She was awake, if not exactly chipper. But then, she had never been a morning person. "Let's go, then."
A few moments later, Lucy was eyeing the subcompact with raised eyebrows. "I thought you told me you were going to buy a Jeep Cherokee."
"I did. It's at the repair shop," Lois said. "I'm supposed to get it back in a couple of days. This is a loaner."
"Oh? What happened? Fender bender?"
"Um ... Barbara Trevino's hit man shot out my windshield. Let's go."
Lois shook her head. "Wish I were. I had a real hassle convincing my insurance company to pay for it, too. They finally classified it under vandalism."
Her sister seemed dumbfounded for a few moments and when Lois pulled out onto the street, she glanced around a little apprehensively. "Nobody's likely to shoot at us today, are they?"
"I doubt it," Lois said. "Trevino's in jail, remember."
"And this didn't scare your partner off?"
"Clark? Of course not. He was in the Jeep with me. He saved my life."
"Oh." Lucy seemed slightly stunned. "Does Mom know about it?"
"No, and please don't say anything to her, either," Lois said. "You know Mother. She'd have to double her tranquilizer dosage and it wouldn't do her blood pressure any good."
"Yeah, I know," Lucy said. "Does this sort of thing happen a lot?"
"Not too often," Lois said. "I don't really go looking for people to shoot at me, you know."
"Could have fooled me," Lucy said. "Wasn't it that scientist who was trying to sabotage the space program that tied you up in the hangar and tried to blow you up?"
"Well ... yes. But I got out of it by picking the lock on the chain. What's your point?"
"Lois, this happens to you all the time!"
"Not all the time," Lois said, trying not to sound defensive. "Just now and then."
"Do you know how often it's happened to me?"
"Weren't you there when Fontana and Pennyhaven's Jewelry got held up?"
"Yes, but they weren't threatening to kill me! They just had a bunch of us in the store while the police negotiated with them. Nobody got shot."
"Neither did I," Lois said, unarguably. "Don't play mother hen with me, Lucy. I get enough of that from Mother." She negotiated the corner under the nose of a cement truck. "Have you talked to her recently?"
"Mother? About a week ago, I guess. She's out of Rehab."
"This time she says she's going to stay sober."
"She said that last time, too. I'll believe it when I see it."
"Well, she said she met a guy while she was there. He's some kind of actor who was drying out. He got out at the same time she did, so they're going to try to support each other."
"Uh huh," Lucy said. "Who knows, maybe she'll succeed."
"I'll believe that when I see it, too," Lois said. "An actor?"
"Lois, you're cynical."
"Well, aren't you?"
Lucy shrugged. "Kind of, I guess. I'd just like to see her prove to Daddy that she can get along without him, without whiskey to help."
"Yeah," Lois said. "So would I."
"Have you heard from Daddy recently?"
"About six months ago. He's still working in athletic reconstructive surgery. He has a new girlfriend, too. Or he did."
Lucy rolled her eyes. "Let me guess. She's about twenty-five."
"Argh! When is the man going to grow up?"
Lois didn't answer. She figured Lucy didn't really expect one. The university campus was only a block away now, and within minutes she pulled up at the curb, just across from the Administration building. "You're sure you can get a ride back?"
"Yeah, pretty sure."
"If you can't, you have my phone number at work. If I'm not in, call my beeper. Perry's talking about getting us cellular phones. When he does, I'll give you that number, too."
"You're sure I won't be a bother?"
"I'm sure. Perry doesn't have Clark and me on a set schedule, anyway. We're investigating some ... I guess you'd call it business corruption, right now."
"Okay." Lucy glanced at her watch. "I'd better go. I'm supposed to see the class counselor in twenty minutes to try to decide what courses I need to take this next semester." She opened the door and got out. "See you later, sis."
"Right." Lois made no move to pull away from the curb, waiting as her sister crossed the street and headed down the sidewalk toward the big, brick building. The day was overcast and a light sprinkling of snow was drifting down. The tiny flakes melted as they lit on the windshield.
Watching her, Lois heaved a small sigh. Inadvertently, Lucy had put her finger directly on the real problem, she thought. Only how did you deal with a father who was terminally an emotional four-year-old? No wonder she and her sister had the problems they did.
Lucy, at twenty-one, was having a great deal of difficulty finding a direction in her life. Lois, on the other hand, had always been very driven, always determined to do better than her best, and when she reached her goal, she inevitably found that it wasn't good enough for her own standards. There was probably some deep, profound meaning there, she thought, but she was darned if she could figure out what it was.
Lucy had disappeared into the Administration building. Shelving her thoughts as unproductive, Lois glanced back and pulled out onto the street again. She and Charlie had a billionaire criminal to catch.
Lois pulled into a parking space in the Daily Planet's underground garage and cut the engine. A glance at her watch as she shut and locked the door of the little subcompact told her that she was a few minutes early. She saw Jimmy's battered fixer-upper a few spaces down from her own parking spot, and the flashy, red sports car that belonged to Ralph parked next to it. The man was just locking the door as she rang for the elevator, and he joined her a moment later, whistling cheerfully.
"Hey there," he greeted her. "Where's Kent? You two have a falling out?"
Lois glanced indifferently at him. "Why would you think a thing like that?"
"You always come in to work together," Ralph said. He gave her an appraising, sideways glance. Lois consciously refrained from bristling.
"That was while he was my bodyguard," she said, coolly. "Since nobody's trying to kill me anymore, I came in alone."
Ralph's eyebrows climbed almost to the level where his now-receding hairline had once been. "Who was trying to kill you?"
"Barbara Trevino's assassin," Lois said. "And later, Trask threw me out of his plane. Don't you ever pay attention to what's going on in the newsroom, Ralph?"
He gave her a skeptical sideways glance. "If he threw you out of his plane, why are you still alive?"
"Because Superman showed up, remember? He caught me, as well as the government agent that got thrown out along with me, and then caught Trask and his goons. Not all the details were in the paper, but everybody in the newsroom knew it -- except you."
"Hey," Ralph said, piously, "I mind my own business."
The elevator arrived just then, which was fortunate, Lois thought. It gave her time to recover from the effect of this manifestly false statement. They rode it to the newsroom in silence and Lois stepped out ahead of Ralph, glancing around for her partner.
He wasn't at his desk, she saw, but the monitors were on and showed the image of a hostage standoff. The familiar Administration building of New Troy State loomed in the background. As Lois stared in complete shock, and the announcer explained that a hostage crisis at New Troy State University had taken the occupants of the Administration building by complete surprise, she saw a blue and red streak shoot past the camera and into the building. A moment later, Superman emerged with a disgruntled young man held by the back of his collar, and a bundle of guns under the other arm. Police and paramedics streamed past him as Superman handed his captive over to a pair of police officers.
"Superman!" The announcer rushed up to the Man of Steel. "The hostages! Is anyone hurt? Any casualties?"
Lois waited, her heart in her mouth. It sounded to her as if the man was hoping that he would have some ghastly tragedy on which to report.
Superman shook his head. "No one was hurt," he explained, his voice sounding deceptively mild. "Some of them are a little shaken up, but they weren't physically injured. Excuse me." He disappeared from the camera's range, and Lois belatedly let out her breath. If Clark said no one was hurt, she believed him. It would figure that this was the day that Lucy had gone to the university. A little superstitious tingle crawled over the back of her neck, but she shook it off. Trouble didn't automatically find the Lane women, she told herself. It was just a coincidence, but at least maybe now her sister would refrain from pointing out how many times Lois had been in life or death situations in the last six months or so. Not that Lucy really knew, she assured herself. After all, that business with the Shockwave coastal defense system had been a one shot thing, and so had the situation with the gunrunners. And she certainly hadn't meant to get herself thrown into the Hobs River tied hand and foot. It had just sort of happened. Fortunately, she'd been working on the ropes and had managed to get them off her hands once she was in the water, and swim to shore. She hadn't mentioned most of those things in the articles she'd written, so it was unlikely that Lucy would find out about them.
There were the hostages now, emerging from the building. Lucy was about halfway back in the crowd, looking surprisingly unruffled. The camera shifted, and the announcer was speculating on the reasons for the incident as the police hustled the gunman into the back of a police car. Superman had vanished, but for a second, she caught a glimpse of someone who looked like Clark in the background.
Slowly, she descended the ramp and made her way across the Pit to her desk. A vase of long-stemmed red roses sat prominently on the far-left corner, and she picked up the card.
The writing was familiar; probably because of the number of documents she had been perusing in the last couple of days bearing this particular signature. It said simply, "I enjoyed last night. Love, Lex".
"Send yourself roses again?" Cat Grant's voice said behind her.
Lois smiled, continuing the act for the benefit of any hypothetical spy. Admittedly, it seemed unlikely that anyone was watching her, but it had also seemed unlikely that anyone would bug her apartment or shoot a rocket-propelled grenade through her window. Until she was certain that Luthor was completely deceived, she and Clark would continue to take precautions against his finding out that they harbored suspicions of his real nature. Lex Luthor couldn't have arrived at his present station in life by being careless.
"I had dinner with Lex Luthor last night," she informed Cat with just a touch of condescension, holding out the card to her co-worker. She didn't fail to notice Ralph's instant interest, either. She had no doubt that various rumors about her and Luthor would soon be circulating, fueled by his inevitably gutter-oriented mind.
Cat took the card and read it, her eyebrows climbing toward her hairline. "Nice," she remarked. "He's never sent me flowers."
"Lex and I have ... dated upon occasion."
"This was an interview," Lois informed her.
"Naturally," Cat said. She shook her head. "I'll bet you didn't even have dessert."
"That figures." Cat gave her the card back and walked away.
Jimmy was standing by her desk as she turned back, a sheaf of printouts in his hand. "Here's some of that stuff you wanted me to look for," he said, keeping his voice low. "Companies belonging to ... well, you know, and the circumstances leading up to their acquisition. It makes for interesting reading, I'll say that much."
"Any luck on the phone numbers?" Lois asked.
Jimmy nodded. "Some. One of them is the number to the switchboard to LexTower. The other is to a cellular phone, but I'm having trouble identifying who it belongs to. It's unlisted and none of my usual contacts seem to be able to find out."
"Keep trying," Lois said. "It would be interesting if it belonged to ... him."
"Sure would," Jimmy agreed.
"I'll work at it from my end, too," Lois said. "I might be able to find out if it's his, if he wants to see me again." She glanced sideways at the bouquet.
Jimmy did as well. "That's an idea," he agreed. "Okay, I'm on it."
The elevator doors opened and Clark Kent stepped out. As he did so, Lois's phone shrilled. She picked it up, thinking that the day seemed to be getting started with a real kick. "Lois Lane."
"Hello, Lois." It was Henderson's voice. "You might want to come by the Precinct when you get the chance. I'd like to talk to you about that subject we spoke about the last time I saw you."
"Oh ... uh, right. I'll be there in a while," Lois said. The last time they had spoken was when the Police Inspector had dropped by her apartment in response to her report of a break-in. The subject had been Lex Luthor. "Thanks, Inspector."
"Not a problem," Henderson said. "Always glad to do a favor for the Press." He hung up.
"Anything?" Clark's voice said from behind her. He propped a hip on the corner of her desk and set a cup of coffee on a clear spot.
"Yeah. Henderson wants to talk to us. About ... that subject."
"Hmm." Clark's eyebrows went up slightly. "It seems to me as if the good Inspector is hoping we'll be able to turn up something he can use."
"Well ... he may. If there's corruption in the Department ..."
"The thought had occurred to me," Clark agreed. "If some of his men are on ... his payroll, an outside investigation might be the only way he'll be able to find any evidence before it disappears. You trust him, don't you?"
"That's good enough for me. I need to write up this morning's hostage standoff for Perry, and then we can go see what he has to say."
Lois nodded. "I saw some of it," she said. "Lucy was okay, wasn't she?"
"She was fine," Clark said. "She took the whole thing in stride. I left her talking to the police."
"What was it all about, anyway?"
Clark shrugged. "Some student was upset because he's failing most of his subjects. He was claiming that the school had it in for him and wanted to talk to the media so he could present his case to the public."
"Well, he'll get his chance," Lois said, dryly. She picked up her coffee. "Better get it written up. Thanks for the coffee, by the way."
"Hey," Ralph said, nudging Clark in the ribs as he went by. "You better watch out. She's seeing Lex Luthor, now. Out of your class, Kent."
Lois rolled her eyes and Clark shook his head. "Thanks for the warning, Ralph."
Lois was still muttering dire threats against Ralph a short time later when she and Clark stepped into the elevator and Clark punched the button for the roof. Her objection to driving the subcompact still applied, and so did Clark's. At his suggestion, they took the aerial route to the Precinct to speak with Henderson.
Lois shaded her eyes against the tiny flakes that sifted down. "I hope this doesn't turn into another heavy snow," she said.
"The weather report is predicting less than a foot," Clark said. "Not too bad. Just enough for a Christmas atmosphere."
"This may be the first Christmas that I've enjoyed in a long time," Lois said. "I've dreaded Christmas for so long, it's something new to actually look forward to it."
"Why didn't you like Christmas?" Clark asked. "Your parents?"
She nodded. "For Lucy and me, it was always an ordeal to get through," she said. "Dad and Mother would always start out determined to be civil to each other, but they'd inevitably end up fighting. Then Dad would stomp out and Mother would start drinking. Lucy and I would always go up to our rooms with our gifts and pretend everything was normal. It wasn't fun."
Clark shook his head. "I can understand why you feel the way you do," he said. "But that's not the way we do things in Smallville. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised."
"You said that Christmas is always the biggest party in Smallville," Lois said.
"It is. You saw the preparations when we were there, last week. Rachel's been getting ready for two weeks and there's still almost two weeks to go. I hope she and Roy get things straightened out by then."
"You mean that Neanderthal of a boyfriend," Lois said.
"Well, it's none of our business, and she wouldn't thank us for interfering," Clark said. "Rachel's a smart woman. She'll work it out."
"I hope so," Lois said.
"She will," Clark said. "He didn't want her to become the Sheriff, but she did, and he's been trying to talk her into quitting ever since. She's still the Sheriff. Don't underestimate her."
"I guess I shouldn't," Lois said. "He just rubbed me the wrong way, that's all."
"He has that effect on a lot of people," Clark said. "We went to school together, but he and I weren't exactly close friends."
"Jealousy?" Lois asked. "You took Rachel to the prom, didn't you?"
"Yes," Clark affirmed. "Roy flipped his truck out on River Road and Lana somehow got a bad case of poison ivy, so Rachel and I ended up going together. He tried to pick a fight with me about it after he got out of the hospital, but we'd have looked pretty stupid trying to fight with one of his legs still in a cast. Besides, it wouldn't have been fair."
"I guess not," Lois agreed. "I suppose it wasn't easy for you while you were growing up, even in Smallville."
He laughed. "Sometimes I thought I was going crazy," he said. "All those strange things were happening to me. I remember, I accidentally saw through the wall into the girls' locker room when I first got x-ray vision, and I was so embarrassed I didn't go near Lana for three days. But Mom and Dad helped me through all the weird stuff, and after a while I began to realize that what I could do had its positive side. Then, when I was eighteen I found out I could fly. That was definitely a plus."
"Is that when you decided to travel?" she asked.
"No, first I went to Midwest U, and after I graduated I traveled the world for a couple of years. When I finally had my fill of that, I came home and joined the newspaper staff. Then last year we lost our editor in a car crash, and I kind of got pushed into the job. And ..." He grinned. "Then, Nightfall showed up, and you know what happened after that."
"We've come a long way since the night we met," Lois said.
"That's for sure," Clark said. "Three of the biggest events of my life happened in just two weeks. I met the woman that I've been waiting for, for twenty-seven years, I got my job at the Daily Planet and I went public as Superman."
"And you saved the world from Nightfall," she reminded him.
"No, you did that," he corrected her.
"We did it," Lois said, refusing to argue. "It was a partnership."
"That sounds fair," he agreed. "'We', then. I like that better, anyway."
"So do I." Lois reflected that the speed with which she had gone from "I" to "we" had to be some kind of world record, but then, how many women who had their ambitions focussed solely on a career met a guy like Charlie? And that didn't even count the powers and saving the world.
They were slanting downward now, to land in the alley behind the police station. Her partner gave a last quick glance around and spun back into his civilian clothing. "Okay, let's go see what Henderson wants to talk about."
The desk sergeant was apparently expecting them, for he directed them into the back after a disinterested glance at them, and Henderson's voice bade them enter almost before Lois had finished knocking. The Inspector was looking intently at something on his computer screen, and barely glanced up. "Shut the door," he said, without preliminary. "I want to show you something."
Lois obeyed. "What's so urgent?"
"Urgent isn't exactly the word," Henderson said, keeping his voice low. "Normally, I wouldn't be telling this to anyone outside the Department, but you and I have a mutual interest here, and I can't do this on my own. I still thought hard before I called you, but I figured since you're already in it up to your necks, anyway, it couldn't do any harm and you might be able to find out some things I can't. Any kind of investigation I do involving that mutual interest is going to be reported to him."
"Are you saying ..."
"There's going to be an investigation from here, of course," Henderson continued, as if she hadn't spoken. "The detective in charge of it will conclude that it was probably drug-related or some other connection having nothing to do with our mutual interest. Eventually, it will go down as another unsolved murder. Unless you're willing to help me. If we work together, I think it would be to our mutual advantage."
Lois and Clark looked at each other. "Go on," Lois said.
Henderson apparently took that to mean agreement. "A body washed up on the bank of the Hobs River this morning."
"What's so unusual about that?" Lois asked.
"Nothing, usually. His name was Enrique Moran. He'd been tortured to death."
"Oh?" Lois took a seat in one of the chairs facing Henderson's desk. "I take it this is leading somewhere."
Henderson nodded and waved to a folder that lay on one corner of his desk. "Take a look. It's not a pretty sight, but you may recognize him."
Lois glanced at Clark, then reached out and appropriated the folder. Clark sat down next to her, and for several minutes there was complete silence except for the rustle of them shuffling through the photographs. As Henderson had said, they weren't pretty, but there was a familiarity to the man's distorted features.
Clark spoke slowly. "I could be wrong, but I think I saw this man the night of the Christmas Charity Ball."
Lois nodded slowly. "Yes. He served dinner last night during my interview with Lex."
Henderson nodded. "He was one of the servants who worked in the penthouse at LexTower."
"Interesting coincidence," Lois said. "Still, it seems like an ordinary murder case. What has this got to do with us?"
"Let's say, I had a tip from somebody unnamed," Henderson said. "That's why I know who he is. I still haven't put it in my report. Whether I do or not depends on you. Moran stole something that he shouldn't have from the subject of our mutual interest."
"And didn't get away with it, I'd say," Lois said. "Being tortured to death is a pretty stiff penalty for theft."
"The item he took was apparently very hot stuff," Henderson said. "A personal diary. It wasn't recovered. Moran apparently passed it to an accomplice before they caught up with him."
"This is getting interesting," Clark said. "Do they know who he passed it to?"
Henderson shook his head. "Apparently, Moran pointed to a guy named Joey 'Fingers' McPherson as the man he gave the item to. We suspect Joey of collecting protection money for the rackets. For some reason he's still alive, but we don't know why."
"Do you have an address for this guy?" Lois asked.
Henderson rose from his desk and casually handed her a slip of paper on his way to the door. "I don't have to tell you that we never talked about this subject."
"What did we talk about?" Clark asked.
"The lack of progress on Lois's apartment break-in."
Lois nodded. "No doubt that was just a random incident," she said, getting to her feet.
"No doubt," Henderson said. "But watch your backs." He opened the door for them. "Sorry I wasn't able to be of more help, Lois," he said, and she was aware of the blue-clad form of a police officer at the water-cooler a short distance away. "There have been a bunch of petty thefts in that area of town. If anything turns up, I'll let you know."
"Yeah, right," Lois said. "You do that."
"Now that," Clark said, as they once more took to the sky, "was very interesting."
"Very," Lois said. "Henderson must not know who to trust."
"Except you," Clark said.
"So there must be a leak in the Police Department," Lois said.
"Or in the DA's office."
"Maybe both. Luthor's got somebody on his payroll."
"Probably more than one," Clark said.
"Yeah. Now, how are we going to approach this?"
"I'd say, the first thing to do is to check out this Joey McPherson," Clark said. "Moran fingered him as the recipient of the diary, but he's still alive. There has to be a reason."
"Before we do that, I need to talk to Bobby," Lois said.
"Bobby Bigmouth. My snitch. I need to call him and arrange a meeting, and introduce you to him, but before we go to meet him, I need to stop off at the deli and pick him up a meal."
Clark's eyebrows went up. "A meal? Is the guy homeless, or something?"
"No," Lois said. "You have to know Bobby. He eats enough to feed an army every day. The meal is his payment."
"Not your usual snitch," Clark observed.
"Definitely. But the guy must have microphones in every crime lord's den in the city. I wouldn't trade him for half a dozen other ordinary snitches."
"I've got to meet this guy," Clark said. "Why don't we stop and I'll pick him up a deli sandwich and salad ..."
"Don't forget dessert," Lois cautioned. "Bobby likes his desserts, the more caloric, the better."
"I figured that. I know the perfect place. You can make the call and I'll get the food."
Making absolutely certain that he wasn't observed, Denny Brown slipped quietly through the broken door of the abandoned building that he and Jack had made their home for the last two weeks. Once inside, he carefully pulled the blanket that hung over the entrance into place to block out the icy wind.
It was dim inside the building. They had a kerosene lantern that Jack had acquired the second day after they'd found this place but it wasn't lit. They were running low on kerosene, Jack had explained. He didn't want to waste it when they got some light through the windows during the day.
Only now, Jack had pulled the ragged shades over the windows as well. It helped to keep the interior of the building marginally warmer than the outside, but Denny could barely see. Still, he knew the place pretty well. He and his brother had escaped from the last set of foster homes and had hidden in an abandoned subway tunnel for three days; then Jack had found this place. The Nightfall thing had kept the CPS people occupied for a while, and he and Jack hadn't seen any sign of them since, so they had stayed. Denny had no doubt that the authorities were still hunting for the two of them, but Jack and he were on the other side of Metropolis from his last foster home, so maybe no one would find them where they were -- especially if they were very careful not to draw attention to themselves.
But something must have happened last night. Jack had shown up some time this morning before the sun had come up and hadn't set foot outside of the building since. He'd even sent Denny to get the food from the fast food place.
Denny shivered in the chill that permeated their home. Something was wrong. Maybe Jack had spotted someone looking for them, he thought, but that didn't quite make sense. Who would have spotted Jack in the middle of the night?
Well, he needed to find out what was going on. His brother tried to protect him all the time. It was kind of scary not to have somebody to watch out for them, but the time when they had really had a mom and dad was long since gone. Denny's father had been killed in a factory fire when Denny was three. He barely remembered the man. Their mother had gone through a succession of boyfriends after that, and none of them cared two cents for him or Jack. Three years ago, she and her latest boyfriend took off for Las Vegas and didn't come back. The CPS people showed up a couple of weeks later when somebody had notified them that the boys seemed to be alone. Then the System had stuck them first in an orphanage and then in separate foster homes. Neither Denny nor Jack had liked the arrangement. Denny had resigned himself to being shuffled from one place to another, but Jack had protested and fought, and earned himself the reputation of a troublemaker. He'd escaped twice, and the last time he and Denny had managed to get away. There was no way they were going to go back, Denny thought. If the authorities had finally managed to track them to this part of town, they would have to get out of here.
"Jack?" he called, softly. "It's me."
"Did anybody see you?" Jack's voice asked.
"No. I got the food here," Denny added. "Jack, what's going on?"
Denny felt his way into the back room. Jack was huddled on the old mattress covered with ragged blankets that the two of them used for a bed, wearing the jacket that he'd come home with yesterday afternoon.
"It's not nothing!" Denny insisted. "You're afraid somebody's gonna see you! What happened last night?"
"Nothing important," Jack said. "I just have to lay low 'til I'm sure the heat's off. What did you get?"
"Hamburgers and fries," Denny said, passing over the bag containing his brother's meal. "I got milkshakes, too. Look, Jack, you gotta tell me what's going on. It's not the CPS people, is it?"
"No. I saw something last night," Jack said. "They might have seen me, but they didn't get a good look. I just have to be sure nobody's looking for me."
"Who saw you?"
"Denny, trust me. It's better if you don't know about it."
Denny shook his head. "I want to know what's going on," he insisted. "I'm not a little kid anymore. I'm nearly twelve. What happened to you last night? Where did you go? And what's in that bag you stuck behind the wall?"
Jack heaved a sigh of exasperation. "That's our way out. As soon as it's safe, we're gonna buy us bus tickets out of town. I figure we'll head somewhere out west like Texas or Kansas or someplace like that. CPS will never find us there."
Denny thought about that. "Don't they have social workers there?" he asked, doubtfully.
"Sure, but they won't be looking for us," Jack said. "We just have to be sure to keep a low profile 'til I'm eighteen. Look, Den, as soon as I'm sure nobody's looking for me, we're gonna get a bus out of town. We're gonna take local buses so nobody can find a trail until we're a good ways away from Metropolis. It'll be okay. You'll see."
"Well, okay," Denny said. "But what about last night?"
Jack glowered at him. "This money is protection money a guy collected from some businesses, okay? I took it from a crook and nearly got caught. They might have seen me on a videocamera, but they couldn't have got a very good picture. I had my face down. Anyway, I figure I need to stay out of sight for awhile." He shifted around. "I got something else here," he added. "I think it's a book or something. Whatever it is, it might be worth a lot to somebody. Is the flashlight still working?"
"Yeah. The batteries are still good -- some, anyway. We're gonna need some more, soon." Denny reached under the mattress and removed the flashlight.
"I want to see what's so important about this thing," Jack said. He reached under the jacket and removed a small package. Denny heard paper tear and then Jack took the flashlight from his hand. A pale, yellowish beam of light came on.
It was a small, bound book, Denny saw, and on the cover in florid gold printing were the letters LL.
Jack opened it, to reveal pages of neat, close-written handwriting. Denny wasn't very good at reading handwriting yet but Jack was. He waited patiently, helping to shield the yellowish beam of the flashlight. Probably nobody outside would notice anything, but he didn't want to take the risk.
"It's a diary," Jack said, finally. He was frowning at the writing. "I can see why he wants it back, too."
"You don't want to know. Denny, you gotta promise me right now that you won't tell anybody about this. I've gotta decide what to do with it." He frowned at the handwriting again, then flipped through the pages. At the top of each page, the date was written clearly in black ink. "Huh," Jack said. "Here's yesterday's date. There's some more pages, but they're blank."
"Whose book is it?" Denny asked. "Who's LL?"
"Don't ask." Jack snapped off the flashlight. "I'm gonna hide this thing with the money." He hoisted himself to his feet and crossed to a spot where a plywood board leaned against the wall. When he removed it, it could be seen that a large hole gaped in the cracked plaster, and he shoved the little book down inside. He leaned the plywood against the wall again, and returned to the mattress.
Denny munched his hamburger without saying anything. Jack dug into the bag of fast food and removed his own hamburger. He took a long slurp on the vanilla shake that accompanied it and then bit into the burger. For several moments, neither boy spoke.
"Den," Jack said, suddenly. "I got somethin' for you."
"This." Jack handed him a card. "The guy who gave me the jacket yesterday, gave me this. It's his business card. He said to call him if I needed help. I didn't figure I did, but now ..." He took another drink of milkshake. "The guy's a reporter. If something happens to me, I want you to call him."
"Nothing's going to happen to you!"
"It won't if I can help it," Jack said. "But if something does, do it. Okay?"
Denny gulped, a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. "Okay," he mumbled, sticking the card into his back pocket. "Don't let anything happen, Jack."
"I won't. I'm just being careful. Call it insurance."
Bobby Bigmouth was a thin, sharp-faced man who seemed to blend into the background.
It was a good quality for someone in his line of work, Clark thought. If Lois hadn't pointed him out, he might not even have noticed the man and certainly wouldn't have paid more than cursory attention to the drab, uninteresting figure slouching on a park bench, throwing popcorn to the hungry pigeons hopping around on the withered grass, pecking at the food. Every now and then, a handful of the popcorn went into his own mouth. Clark grinned as Lois's description of the informant came to mind. At a guess, Bobby's nickname wasn't related to his chosen profession.
He and Lois went on by and into an area devoted to children's playground equipment. It was past noon, but the weather conditions were not such as to induce mothers and babysitters to bring their small charges to the park. The area was deserted. Clark verified that by a quick glance around over the rims of his glasses. They strolled past the playground, and settled down at a wooden picnic table situated in the shelter of a small grove of trees. Clark quietly placed two brown paper bags containing a thick, deli sandwich, potato salad, a large slice of chocolate cream pie and a tall, insulated cup of café mocha on the seat of the picnic table a few feet from their own. In the warmer months, the little grove would furnish shade for picnickers, but now the branches were leafless and bare. Still, the tree trunks supplied a certain amount of cover, and Bobby had specified this spot as their meeting place. Lois opened the bag she carried and extracted the deli sandwich and coffee that Clark had bought for her. Clark did the same. To all appearances they were two persons who had decided to lunch in the park in defiance of the light sprinkle of snow that drifted lazily down.
"Anybody watching?" Lois asked.
"No. Not yet, anyway."
Lois pulled her coat more tightly around her and uncapped the cup of hot coffee. "Brrr. This stuff isn't going to stay hot long at this rate."
"If it gets cold, I'll take care of it," Clark assured her. He uncapped his own coffee and dipped a finger into it in a familiar gesture.
"Show off," Lois said, but she smiled at his re-enactment of the test that she had used to prove to him that he was impervious to heat.
He dumped four sugars and two containers of half-and-half into the coffee and took a healthy drink, then began to unwrap his sandwich. "Here comes your friend."
Bobby Bigmouth's thin, drab figure strolled into view, slouching slightly, anonymous and unremarkable. He drifted toward the grove, somehow not at all purposefully, and when he stepped into the trees, Clark was quite sure that any ordinary observer would have completely lost track of him among the trunks. He glanced around again, but could see no watcher. Still, he had to admire the man's consummate skill at remaining inconspicuous.
Bobby Bigmouth sank down on the bench of the picnic table where Clark had placed the bags and picked one up. Lois and Clark remained silent while the snitch opened the containers, removed the sandwich, unwrapped it and sniffed. "Whoa," he said. "This is a work of art! What deli did this come from?"
"It's called Jeanie's Snack Shop and Delicatessen," Clark said. "It's only been around a couple of months. This is their Deli Club Special."
"I gotta try this place," Bobby said. He took a healthy bite and chewed rapturously. "I like your new partner, Lois. He's got good taste."
"I'm glad you approve," Lois said, dryly. "Bobby, this is Clark Kent."
"Yeah, I know. I been reading your articles the last couple o' weeks. Nice work."
"Thanks," Lois said. She took a swallow of her cooling coffee. As she put it down, Clark lowered his glasses and shot a surreptitious beam of heat vision into the liquid. A curl of steam responded.
"The word," Bobby said, casually, "is that the diary is sort of a 'brag book'."
"What do you mean?" Lois asked.
Bobby took a swig of his café mocha. "You ever notice," he said, "how a lot of the really smart bad guys kind of like to document what they've done, kind of like an ego trip for them? You see it lotsa times. Some really twisted, smart serial killer who keeps souvenirs from his victims, or people like those guys out west who kidnapped and killed women, and videotaped all of it; that kinda thing?"
"I think I understand," Clark said. "This diary is ..."
"A kinda private record of his accomplishments," Bobby said. "Names, dates, descriptions ... everything. All in his own handwriting. Great blackmail material ... at least, that's the word I hear."
Lois nodded. "Sounds like an ego trip that could blow up in somebody's face," she said.
"Plenty of them do," Clark said. "I'd guess that this particular somebody is pretty desperate to get it back."
"Yeah." Bobby took a bite of the potato salad. "Hey, this is great! It's even got egg in it, and I really like the hint of dill."
"Only the best," Lois said. "So why is Joey still alive?"
"Well, they don't know if Moran lied about who he gave it to," Bobby said. "Nobody found anything in his place. He'd been robbed, too, though. Some young guy broke into his safe and took all his protection receipts. Joey's got a week to get it back and find out who's got the diary; then ..." Bobby drew a finger across his throat.
"Our other contact didn't say anything about that," Lois said. "How do they know?"
"The guy was hidin' in Joey's apartment," Bobby explained, inhaling the last of the sandwich and polishing off the potato salad in three bites. "I wouldn't put any big bets on Joey living past a week, even if he gets it back, though. If Moran wasn't lying, Joey mighta had the thing. Could be the thief got it, too." He began to open the container with the pie. "Whoa! This is great!"
"I guess they didn't catch the thief?" Lois asked.
"Nope." Bobby bit into the pie, and an expression of sheer bliss spread across his features as he chewed. "Tellya what," he continued, rather thickly around the pie, "I'll do some digging and try to get you more, if you bring me another meal like this one. I gotta be careful, though. This thing's red hot. It ain't just Joey tryin' to find it. Whoever's got that diary is dead if they catch him."
Lois nodded. "It's a deal," she said.
Bobby nodded and bit into the pie again. Clark glanced around, assuring himself that there were still no observers, as he and Lois wadded up the debris from their meal, stuffed it and the crumpled bags into a wire trash receptacle and walked off without another word, leaving Bobby to enjoy his dessert in solitude.
Lucy was sitting in Lois's desk chair when Lois and Clark arrived in the newsroom, attended by Jimmy Olsen and a young staffer from Classifieds, whom Lois vaguely recognized. Tim something, she thought. They glanced around as Lois approached her desk and reluctantly gave up their places. Her sister smiled at them, and Lois was amused to see the slightly glazed expression on Jimmy's face as he returned to his duties.
"Hi," Lucy said. "I got a ride with one of the guys at the hostage thing this morning, but I left my key at your place. Can I borrow yours?"
Knowing her sister, Lois wasn't even slightly surprised. She extracted the spare key that she kept in her desk drawer. "Leave it by the telephone answering machine."
"No sweat," Lucy said. "I have to change clothes. I have a date this afternoon."
That wasn't a surprise, either. "Anybody I know?"
Lucy shook her head. "His name's Brian. I met him this morning, and we got to talking after Superman caught the crazy guy with the guns. He's awesome."
"Superman is pretty awesome," Lois agreed.
"Well, him, too, but I meant Brian. He's a graduate student in business administration. He's going into his brother's business after he graduates. Did you know that New Troy State has one of the best MBA programs in the world? Even better than most of the private colleges."
"I think I heard that, somewhere," Clark said, and Lois saw the corners of his mouth quiver slightly.
"Anyway," Lucy said blithely, "Brian asked me out for a late lunch, and he's going to pick me up at your place about two, so I have to hurry. He's going to take me over to the college again tomorrow, too. The stuff they were going to do this morning kind of got messed up by the crazy guy, and they postponed it."
"Yeah, I can see that a hostage crisis might disrupt their schedule," Lois said, trying to keep her voice level. "You'd better hurry if you're going to make it in time."
"I'll cut through the park," Lucy said, jumping to her feet. "See you later, sis. Nice seeing you again, Clark."
When she had gone, Clark gave a soft laugh. "Your sister has the family energy, I can see that."
"I just wish she were a little less scatterbrained," Lois said.
"She'll grow up," Clark said. "Give her time. So, now what do you want to do?"
"Well, if 'Joey' was robbed, I'd like to talk to him."
"He might not be willing to talk to the press," Clark pointed out.
"Probably not. We'll have to think of something. At the least, I want to visit his apartment house and see what he looks like. We can't follow him if we can't identify him."
"You're right about that," Clark said. "Well, why don't we --" He broke off in mid-sentence at the interruption of one of the newsroom's police scanners.
"Attention all units. Code four. Possible jumper, Lexor Hotel. Crowd control and negotiation teams ..."
Perry opened his office door as Clark headed for the exit. Lois grabbed her bag and followed him at a run. "We're on it, Perry!" she tossed over her shoulder.
Clark set Lois down in an alley half a block from the Lexor and shot directly upward, out of the confined space, headed for the Lexor. Lois hurried from the alley and sprinted the short distance down the sidewalk in time to see a tiny figure far above waving his arms at the crowd below.
A red and blue streak crossed the sky and landed beside the tiny figure. Lois peered upward through a pair of binoculars hastily fished from her shoulder bag and saw her partner grasp the man by one arm. He gently but firmly escorted the figure down from the ledge, and then, without warning, she saw his head snap about. In an instant, he had launched himself and was streaking away, faster than the eye could follow. Reacting quickly, she placed two fingers in her mouth and produced a shrill whistle, hailing a cab. A taxi screeched to a stop beside her. "Follow Superman!" she commanded, jumping into the rear seat. The driver pulled away from the curb with a screech of tires, performed a U-turn under the nose of an oncoming fuel truck as Lois pulled her door shut, and took off after the Man of Steel.
"It was really strange," Clark was telling her a short time later, as they walked slowly back into the Daily Planet. "I grabbed that guy's arm and got him down from the ledge, and heard a scream. That woman -- Monique Kahn -- was falling. I didn't have time to think; I just reacted."
"Does something strike you as not quite right here?" Lois said, slowly. "Two people jumping from buildings on a direct line of sight across the city, within seconds of each other. Almost as if it was deliberate."
"I can't believe anyone would take that kind of risk deliberately," Clark said. "That woman couldn't know Superman would be able to get there in time."
Lois shook her head. "I just have this weird feeling about it," she said. "I'm probably wrong."
"If it were anybody besides you, I'd think you were imagining things," Clark said, somewhat doubtfully. "But if you think something isn't right, maybe we should check it out a little further."
"Clark, don't give me too much credit," Lois said. "There have been plenty of times my imagination took me completely in the wrong direction."
"Yeah, maybe." He shrugged uncomfortably. "There isn't much we can do about it for now, anyway. Maybe we'll find out something when we see what the psychiatric report says."
"Yeah." She pushed the button to summon the elevator. "Well, let's get this written up. The afternoon edition is going to press in half an hour."
"You know," Perry White said, "sometimes, I think this city's losing its collective marbles."
Lois swept the contents of her desktop into a drawer and sprayed cleaner onto her computer screen. "Why do you think that, Chief? -- aside from the usual stuff?"
"It just seems like the number of nuts is increasing," Perry said. "Two attempted suicides in one afternoon, and at about the same time some three hundred pound guy decides to take a stroll in the nude across the Metropolis Bridge and blocks traffic for miles in both directions."
"I'm just as glad I didn't see that," Lois said. She rubbed the screen dry with a paper towel, tossed the crumpled paper into her trashcan and dusted off her hands. "I'm heading home. See you in the morning."
Clark joined her as she took her coat from the rack. "Would you like to see a movie, tonight?"
She let him help her with her coat. "I don't know. I think I'd rather pick up some take-out and watch a video."
"How about at my place?" Clark suggested. "Your sofas aren't really made for relaxing on."
She laughed. "Yeah; they're decorative, not comfortable. I don't normally have any reason to sit on them for long periods of time, anyway -- or I didn't, until now. First, I'd like to drop by my place so I can change, though."
The door to her apartment was unlocked when they arrived, and Lois could hear her sister moving around in the kitchen.
"Lucy! You forgot to lock the door again!"
"Oh, sorry." Lucy stuck her head out of the kitchen. "Your keys are by the phone. I'll be leaving in a minute. Brian said he'd pick me up at seven."
"I thought you went out for a late lunch," Lois said.
"We did. He asked me to a movie."
"Oh," Lois said. This was Lucy, she reminded herself. Naturally she had a date for the evening. She located the spare key and dropped it in her bag. "Okay, but if I'm not here when you get back, don't forget to lock the door!"
"Okay." Lucy gave her a curious look. "Got a date?"
"No," Lois said, and found herself crossing her fingers behind her back. "Clark and I have some work to do."
"Oh," Lucy said.
There was a knock on the door. Lucy hurried across the room to open it before Lois could react. "Hi, Brian! Come on in! I'm almost ready."
A tall, dark-haired young man stepped through the door. Lois blinked. Unlike most of Lucy's boyfriends, this one wasn't scruffy or fleabitten in appearance. He was actually wearing a suit and was really quite nice-looking, in spite of the fact that he was dating her sister.
"This is my sister, Lois," Lucy said, "and her partner at work, Clark Kent. Lois, This is Brian Chow. Give me just a minute, Brian, and I'll be right with you."
"Sure." Brian smiled at Lois. "It's nice to meet you, Ms. Lane. I've read your work."
"Thank you," Lois said. "You were at that hostage thing this morning?"
"That's right," Brian said. "I'm enrolling in the MBA program at State. This morning was certainly an interesting introduction to it, though. Nothing like that ever happened to me, before."
Lucy had hurried into her bedroom, and now emerged with her coat, purse and a fuzzy hat. Brian hurried over to help her with the coat.
"I hope that's the only time something like that happens," Lois said. "I take it that it didn't discourage you?"
"Not at all." Brian held Lucy's hat and purse while she buttoned up her coat. "Lucy was an inspiration to me, Ms. Lane. She had more courage than some of the guys there."
Lois didn't quite know what to say to that. Brian's manners were so completely at odds with every other guy that her sister had dated that she was still trying to take it in. Lucy took the hat, pulled it on over her dark hair, and reclaimed her purse. "We might be out a little late, Lois. I'll try not to wake you up when I come in."
"Don't forget your key," was all she could think of to say. Brian allowed Lucy to precede him from the apartment, and they disappeared down the hallway.
"You know, you've really fixed this place up since Friday night," Lois said, looking around at the apartment where she had last seen Superman's spaceship parked in an otherwise empty bedroom, surrounded by dirt, spiderwebs and trash. It was now Tuesday night, and she could have been looking at a completely different place. The trash had vanished, the torn, dirty rug had been removed and the floor beneath it cleaned and waxed, the walls and ceiling had been painted, the cabinets repaired, sanded and varnished, the glass of the windows was sparkling, the cobwebs were gone and the entire apartment was completely spotless. Even the smell of mildew had vanished. Throw rugs now decorated the shining wood floor, and several pieces of furniture, used, but in good condition, sat around the living room. A bookshelf against one wall sported books in several languages, and knick-knacks decorated shelves and tables.
"Well," Clark said, "I didn't want to live in that kind of mess a second longer than I had to. This place had a lot more potential than it looked like in the beginning."
"I can see that. What did you do, study home repair and interior decorating in your spare time?"
"Well, I learned to do a lot of repairs around the farm," Clark said. "And Mom actually did take a class in interior decorating."
"Naturally," Lois said. "I think your mother must be interested in just about everything."
"She is," Clark said. "Did I tell you she even does scuba diving in the summer? I used her air tanks when I went after Nightfall the first time."
"Why am I not surprised?" Lois asked, rhetorically. "But how did you learn about interior decorating?"
"Oh, one afternoon I was bored and sort of leafed through her textbook."
"I see." Lois regarded him thoughtfully. That probably meant that he had read the entire book in about two seconds, if it had even taken that long. "Maybe I should ask you for some tips on my place."
He shook his head and grinned. "Your place is fine, except for the living room chairs and couch. But I think we already covered that."
"We did. So," she said, "what do you want to order?"
"Actually, I thought I'd cook," Clark said. "Remember, I promised you that after I got my place fixed up, I'd invite you over for an apartment-warming dinner?"
"Can you really cook?" Lois asked, doubtfully.
Clark grinned. "I'll let you judge." He broke off. "Oh, no."
"Go," Lois said, immediately. "Dinner will wait."
Clark hadn't had time to explain before he took off. The scream he had heard was the voice of Lucy Lane. He threw himself through the air, moving fast enough that the sonic boom he left in his wake shook buildings across the city.
Martinique's was in the middle of a holdup. Four masked men were holding the staff and customers of the fashionable little bistro at gunpoint. As Clark arrowed toward the scene of the crisis, he saw one of the men seize Lucy's escort by the arm and yank him forward. He raised his handgun and started to strike the young man across the face. A gust of wind burst around them as Clark shot into the room. When it died, the four men were bound hand and foot with pieces of electrical wire and the colorful figure standing beside them was gripping their weapons. As they watched, he systematically crushed each handgun into a hunk of twisted metal and dropped it to the floor, then turned to Lucy's date.
"Are you all right?"
Brian nodded, looking stunned. Lucy rushed forward. "Brian, are you hurt?"
"I'm fine." He put an arm around her. Clark turned his head as the sound of police sirens came belatedly to his ears.
"The police will be here in a moment," he said, turning to a tall man wearing a name badge on his lapel that identified him as the manager.
The man nodded, looking slightly stunned. "Thank you, Superman."
Clark glanced sideways as the first of the police cars pulled up outside and officers clutching various firearms jumped from the vehicles and took up positions of cover behind them. "You're welcome. I'd better let the officers know that the problem is taken care of." He strode to the main door and opened it.
A short time later, he turned to William Henderson, who was supervising the removal of the holdup men. "If you don't need me anymore, Inspector --"
The officer regarded him, thoughtfully. "I think we have everything we need ... Superman. Speaking for my men as well as myself, I'd like to thank you for getting here so quickly. I'd sure like to know how you always seem to turn up at the right place, though."
Clark tapped an ear. "I have excellent hearing -- and I move pretty fast."
"So I've noticed," Henderson said. "All right, you can go. It was nice meeting you. Thanks again."
"You're welcome," Clark said, and was gone.
When he returned to his apartment, Lois was standing in his kitchen, examining the cupboards with a skeptical expression on her face. She turned at the sound of his arrival, just as he emerged from his spin dressed as himself.
"I guess everything's okay?" she asked. "What happened?"
He nodded. "Holdup at Martinique's. I disarmed the holdup men and detained them until Henderson and his men arrived."
"I'll want the story on that."
"I'll give it to you while I make dinner," Clark said, reaching for a saucepan. "Do you like Italian?"
"Sure," Lois said. "Do you actually know how to use all this stuff?"
"Sure, I do. Mom taught me the basics, and I had to do most of my own cooking while I was at college, and while I was traveling. I figured that if I was going to learn something, I was going to learn how to do it right." He began to gather his ingredients, moving quickly about the kitchen. "Lois, maybe you can tell me if I'm imagining something. There was that hostage crisis this morning at the university, and your sister was there. The holdup at Martinique's this evening ..."
"You're not saying that Lucy was there, again," Lois said.
He nodded as he compounded his flour and herb mixture and quickly coated the chicken. A few seconds later, the smell of herbs and frying chicken filled the air. While the chicken was cooking, he began to prepare the fettuccine. "Yes, she was. Could it have been a coincidence?"
"I don't know." She frowned at nothing. "I don't like coincidences."
"Not that kind," Clark agreed. "Do you like Caesar salad?"
"Sure." Slowly, she extracted a notebook from her purse. "Why don't you tell me about it? We can write it up for the paper, and I can find out exactly what happened at the same time."
Clark complied while he cooked, and a short time later, Lois phoned the story to the Planet's rewrite desk. When she put down the phone, she went to his dish cupboard. "Want me to set the table?"
"Sure. It'll be done in a minute. There's a bottle of wine chilling in the refrigerator."
She was silent as she dealt with the table settings and the wine, obviously turning the story over in her mind. Finally, she said, "I don't see how it could be anything but a really weird coincidence. Why would anyone be targeting Lucy?"
Clark transferred the fettuccine to the plates along with the chicken and sauce, and set the salad in the center of the table. "Wine?" he asked.
She nodded. Clark poured a glass for each of them and then whisked out of the room, only to return with a tall, white candle in a cut glass holder. He set it in the middle of the table and lit it with his heat vision. "Would you care to eat, Ms. Lane?"
"Sure." She took her chair, and he sat across from her.
"I don't know if anyone would be targeting her," he said. "You know her a lot better than I do. Does she make a habit of this kind of thing?"
Lois shook her head. "Never. She's always on my case about the things that happen to me." She sliced off a bit of chicken and took a bite. Her eyebrows went up. "This is good!"
Clark smiled. "So, have I proven myself as a cook?"
"If this is any example, you certainly have," Lois said.
They ate in silence for several minutes. Clark finished before Lois and sat back in his chair, sipping the wine while she ate.
"So," he said, finally, "do you really think it's just a coincidence?"
"What else could it be?" she asked. "It isn't as if Lucy's involved with criminals or anything. If you knew my sister, you'd know that for sure."
"I'll take your word for it," he said. "Still, I think Superman will keep his hearing tuned for her, just the same. If it happens again, we might need to start looking for something besides a coincidence."
"If it happens again, I won't even argue," Lois said. "Speaking of criminals, we still have to check out that Joey guy, tomorrow." She set down her fork. "That was delicious, Clark. I guess you'll be able to make up for my lack of cooking skills when we ..." she broke off, looking embarrassed.
"What?" he asked.
"I don't mean to assume anything," she said.
"Oh." He didn't smile. "I told you I've been looking for you all my life, Lois. Did you think I wouldn't want it to be a permanent arrangement?"
Both her cheeks had turned pink. "I ..."
"Do you want it to be permanent, Lois?"
She looked down. "Do you?"
"I certainly do!" He leaned forward. "Lois, I can't imagine feeling this way about any other woman. It took me twenty-seven years to find you. I'd be pretty stupid to decide I wanted to look for someone better. Especially," he added, "since that's not possible!"
"You're absolutely sure about this?"
"You bet I am. Are you?"
"I think so," she said. "I'd begun to think all this true love stuff was a myth. That was before I met you, though."
"Do you think it is, now?"
"I'm beginning to change my mind," she said. "You're very convincing."
"Well," he said, rising from his chair, "until you're completely convinced, I guess I'll have to prove how useful I am to have around. I made a Devil's Food cake for dessert tonight before I came in to work. Do you think you can stand the calories?"
She stared open-mouthed as he removed the cover from the cake plate, revealing his masterpiece. "You made that?"
"I told you my mother taught me to cook," Clark said. "I figure a little bribery can't hurt."
She didn't speak, watching as he cut the cake and presented her with a modest slice. When he had seated himself across from her with a wedge of cake considerably larger than her own, she spoke again. "You make a very persuasive argument, Mr. Kent. If I said I wanted a permanent arrangement, what would you say?" He could tell by her heartbeat that she wasn't nearly as calm as she was trying to appear.
"I'd say that I was going to hold you to it," he replied. "Mrs. Kent didn't raise any stupid kids."
She took a bite of the cake, and closed her eyes for a moment to savor the taste. "I think I'm going to have to triple my workouts," she observed. "So, Mr. Kent, you want to be the cook for ..." She hesitated.
"For the two of us," he said, daringly. "If you want me to."
"Believe me, if you ever tasted anything I cooked, you'd definitely want to be," she assured him. "I know how to make four dishes, and in three of them, the main ingredient is chocolate."
"Sounds like a good deal to me," he said. "Why don't we take our dessert into the living room? I rented Lethal Weapon 2 for you on my way back, since you mentioned that you liked it."
They were silent as they made their way into the living room, and Lois set her cake and wine on his coffee table. "Do you have coasters?"
"Sure." He returned to the kitchen and was back instantly. "Here you go."
They settled onto the sofa and he picked up the VCR remote. He fast-forwarded through the previews and settled back on the cushions beside her as the title came on.
Lois took a sip of wine and glanced at him again. "You're that sure, already?"
He nodded. "I was sure the evening we met, Lois. I already told you that."
She set the wine down. "I wish I thought you were getting what you deserve."
"I am," he said. "That is, if you think you could ..."
"Oh, Clark ..." He saw her wipe away a teardrop. "You know, once you've made the commitment, I'll never let you go, don't you?"
"I'm counting on it," he said, sliding an arm over her shoulders.
She hesitated. "I'd like to say yes right away, but I want you to be sure you know what you're getting into. I'm not the easiest person to live with, you know. How about we date for awhile ... after we've taken care of Luthor, of course. And then if you're still sure after six months ..."
"Sounds like a plan," Clark said. "But I'm not going to change my mind. And in the meantime, I promise to do all the cooking. Deal?"
"Well, unless I can convince your mom to teach me how," she said. "Do you think she would?"
"I'm sure she'd love to," Clark said. He gently tugged her against his chest. "I'd be glad to give you some pointers too, if you really want to."
"Well, I just don't want you to have to do it all," Lois said.
"Lois, it's totally up to you. I'll be happy to do the cooking if you don't want to bother. You have a pretty important job to do, anyway, as Metropolis's best investigative reporter. I plan to learn a lot from you."
"Clark, you're a great reporter!"
"But not as good as you."
"Well ... almost, anyway."
He grinned. "Care to practice some investigation of a more personal sort?"
"Definitely," she said. It was the last word either of them said for some time. Unwatched, Lethal Weapon 2 continued to play.