Author: Nan Smith PM
The day after Blackout in Metropolis is Halloween, and Lois wonders, after the things that happened, if anyone really thinks of her as a good friend. When she goes to report on the Annual Halloween Charity Ball, she finds out in a very unexpected way.Rated: Fiction T - English - Mystery/Sci-Fi - Words: 43,270 - Reviews: 6 - Favs: 9 - Follows: 2 - Published: 05-06-07 - Status: Complete - id: 3525812
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
By Nan Smith
A 2006 Fundraiser Story
Disclaimer: The familiar characters and settings in this story are the property of DC Comics, Warner Bros., December 3rd Productions, et al, and I have no claim on them, nor do I profit by their use. Any new scenes, characters, and the story itself, however, belong to me.
This story is in the timeline of the series. Operation Blackout aired on October 30th. Halloween begins the next day.
"You're buying Halloween candy now?" Clark Kent asked, a slight note of incredulity in his voice.
Lois nodded decisively, steering her shopping cart between rows of shelves that held the occasional bag of candy. The place looked as if a horde of rampaging barbarians had nearly stripped it bare. "I always wait until the last minute."
"Why?" Clark asked, mystified. "Do you get some kind of discount or something?"
"Sort of." Lois fished through the bags of rejected sweets, selecting the best of the leftovers for her cart. "If I buy them too soon, I eat all the chocolate and have to come back and buy more. And then, I have to diet like crazy and increase my gym workouts to lose the extra weight, too. It's easier to do it this way. Besides," she added, gesturing at the stripped shelves, "there's practically no chocolate left by this time, so I'm not as tempted."
"Oh," Clark said. Put that way, she had a point. "Okay, I guess I see what you mean..."
Lois nodded again as she picked up two bags of bubble gum and added it to the growing pile of candy. "That should do it. I just leave it in a big bowl outside my door. There's normally a little left behind when it's over, so I bring that to the office the next day. Somebody usually eats it."
"If you like chocolate, though," Clark added, somewhat unwisely, "why don't you just eat it?"
"Because I don't want to weigh five hundred pounds," Lois said. "We've been through this before, Clark. I love chocolate, but I have to watch how much I eat. Just because you don't gain an ounce when you eat all that junk you eat, doesn't mean other people don't."
Clark prudently shut up. It was his confirmed opinion that Lois would be beautiful if she weighed twice her current weight, but she wasn't going to believe that, so he shelved the argument as fruitless. "So, you don't answer the door on Halloween?"
"Nope. Besides, I'm not going to be home."
"Oh? Got a date?"
"Not exactly. Perry assigned me to cover the Mayor's shindig tonight. The Metro Halloween Ball."
"Ah, I see," Clark said. "Sounds like fun."
Lois rolled the cart up to the checkout, and they waited while the checker rang up her purchases. She paid what looked to Clark like a staggering amount of money for a bunch of second-rate candy and they gathered up the bags.
"Not for me," Lois said, continuing the previous conversation as they carried the three grocery bags of sweets out of the store. "Perry knows I hate these things, but the only other person free to go to this social embarrassment is Mortie. You're lucky you have the day off."
"Mortie?" Clark envisioned the quiet little man. "Maybe he'd enjoy it."
"Mortie's an alcoholic. He avoids that sort of event like poison."
"Oh. I guess I should mind my own business."
"Oh, it's sort of general knowledge, but nobody thinks about it anymore," Lois explained. "He nearly got fired three or four years ago, but then he went on the wagon, and he's got some kind of agreement with Perry not to be sent to any event where they serve alcohol. He's a mean drunk: picks fights with authority figures before he reaches the falling-down stage."
"Mortie?" Clark kept his voice low, but he was startled for all that.
"Yeah, and since he used to be with Army Special Forces in Vietnam, it makes him dangerous. It was a case of dry up or be locked up." Lois shrugged. "I guess he's got enough self-discipline that when he nearly killed somebody in a bar fight, he decided he had to do something drastic. He's really a nice guy when he's sober."
"I guess so," Clark said, after a stunned instant. He'd talked with Mortie on the job and sized him up as a shy, mild-mannered person. It just showed how you could misjudge someone, he thought. Still, the man had realized his problem and taken steps to bring it under control, so that spoke well of him.
"Well," he said, after a moment. "What would you rather be doing besides going to this party?"
"Oh, I don't know." Lois started the Jeep's engine. "After everything that happened with Ryan Wylie and Molly, and nearly getting annihilated by the Hawkeye satellite --" She sighed. "I guess I had my Halloween party early."
"You didn't take me seriously, did you?" Clark asked, suddenly concerned. "You're a great friend. You have to know I mean that. The Planet wouldn't be nearly the paper that it is without you. I was just poking fun at you."
"I know," she said. "It's just that it made me think. How many people do I spend time with? -- other than at work, I mean. How many real friends do I have? Molly and I used to be great friends, but I stopped being her best friend because of Ryan. He was a user and she didn't see it, but he drove me straight up the wall. I guess after he tried to hijack the Hawkeye satellite, yesterday, kill her and me, and blackmail the country into the bargain, she believes me, but if I'd stayed around maybe she would have seen the truth about him without having to go through all that stuff -- but I didn't. And there was Linda -- she didn't think twice about our friendship when it came to a man. She stole my story - well, you know about all that. And then I turned around and did the same to you, and told myself that I was doing it for your own good -- but I really knew better. No wonder people don't think of me as a good friend."
"Lois, that was over a year ago, before we knew each other well. You're the best friend I ever had."
"I nearly ruined that too, with Lex," Lois said. No one else would have noticed the slightly constricted quality to her voice, but no one else on Earth had his hearing. Lois was holding back tears. "I nearly lost you and Perry and Jimmy; the Planet was blown up -- if it hadn't been for you, I'd be married to Lex, and probably miserable. If I'd actually figured out by now that he was a criminal, the situation might be worse than that."
"But none of that happened," Clark pointed out.
"Because of you," she said. "I was as blind as a bat. I couldn't -- or wouldn't -- see what he was in spite of what you told me. Maybe because of what you told me. I was in such an adversarial situation with you, my friend and partner, that I nearly married one of the worst criminals of the modern day. I was so self-centered that I didn't care who I hurt as long as I was right. That's not the behavior of a good friend."
"Lois, that isn't true," he contradicted. "There were a lot of reasons for the way you acted. Luthor was very good at manipulating people, and he put a lot of work into manipulating you." Clark had to bite back the temptation to tell her the truth: that his determination to save her in spite of her resistance had sprung from the fact that he loved her and that the thought of what her life would be like, tied to a sociopath like Luthor, had been almost physical agony to him. She didn't want to hear that from him. She was far more comfortable thinking of him as a friend. He could hardly blame her, of course, after what she had been through. He shouldn't have teased her about it yesterday. She hid it well, but the damage Luthor had done couldn't be erased that easily. "I shouldn't have come across like a jealous jerk. You're a terrific friend. I couldn't wish for a better one."
"You could," she said, "but I'm glad you don't. I get massively competitive and shut my friends out, and treat them badly because I have to be the best. When you were nominated for the Kerth, I couldn't stand it that you were nominated and I wasn't -- I don't know how you put up with me."
"It was a little frustrating at the time, but after we got it straightened out, it was all right," Clark said. "You wouldn't be Lois Lane if you weren't competitive. Cut yourself a little slack. Besides, competing with you has made me sharpen my own reporting skills. It's easy to get lazy if you don't have some stiff competition."
She cleared her throat. "You're right," she said with sudden briskness. "You're a Kerth-winning writer, and that makes me work harder to be the best."
"Exactly," Clark said. "It's one of the things I l -- like about you. So don't worry about whether or not you're a good friend. You're my best friend, and that's all there is to it."
She threw him a slightly watery smile. "All right, I won't. Thanks, Clark."
"Don't mention it." He hoped she hadn't noticed his near-slip. "So, what would you rather do tonight?"
"It doesn't matter," Lois said briskly. "I have to be at the Halloween ball and that's the end of it. Perry wouldn't take no for an answer, so I'm just going to have to be professional about it and do my job."
"If you want me to, I'll do it for you. I can use your pass, and we can always just put your name on the article. You've done it for me a couple of times."
She shook her head. "No. I'd just be sticking you with a job I hate, and I'm sure you have other plans for the evening. But you could help me with my costume." She seemed to shake off the unaccustomed mood. "I'll be all right, Clark. You know me. Hide like a rhinoceros. I heard Wally compare me to one the other day."
"Wally is full of --" Clark bit off the unflattering metaphor. "Well, anyway, he doesn't know you like I do. What kind of costume is it?"
"I'm going as Marie Antoinette," Lois said. "Maybe there'll be so many of us that people will leave me alone. I need some help getting the wig on straight, though."
"Okay." He forbore to mention that he had to be at the Halloween ball as well. The ball was a charity event, and men and women bought tickets for the privilege of attending. One of the incentives to lure in guests was a drawing for prizes, and on the earnest solicitation of the Mayor's wife, dinner with Superman was the grand prize for the women's drawing. He did this kind of thing all the time in the name of charity but suddenly he wished that he could accompany Lois tonight instead. His partner seemed to be unusually introspective and somber this evening. Probably it was just the reaction to the whole mess yesterday, he told himself. Lois wasn't nearly as sure of herself as she pretended, which was why she was so compulsive about being the best, no matter what. It was as if she had to repeatedly prove to the world that there was no one better. Or, more likely, prove to her father, and to herself, that the last time wasn't a fluke, wasn't an accident, that Lois Lane really was the best. That competitiveness had cost her friends more than once, and Clark thought that in some ways Lois was more isolated than he was.
He followed her into her apartment and waited while she poured the candy into a large, plastic tub and set it outside her door. The trick-or-treaters would be coming around soon, and the festivities started in about an hour and a half. Plenty of time.
Lois disappeared into her bedroom. He heard her moving around, and the rustling of cloth. After at least fifteen minutes, she emerged in costume, her hair pinned up, with the wig in her hand. "Clark, can you get this thing on straight? I can't quite seem to manage it."
"Sure," he said. He took the wig and examined it, then eased it onto her hair. "How's that?"
"I think that'll do," Lois said. "I don't know what it was, but it just wouldn't go on straight when I did it. Okay, let me just pin it on and I'm ready."
"Hold it, buddy." The burly fellow taking the tickets blocked the entrance. "Ticket, please."
"I don't have one," he said. "I'm not a guest. I'm a door prize."
"Yeah, right. Get lost, pal. Nobody gets in here without a ticket."
"I'm Superman," he said. "I'm here for the drawing."
The ticket-taker looked him up and down. "Sure you are. Superman's a lot taller than you, buddy. Beat it."
Clark sighed, levitated several feet into the air and floated through the door. He didn't look back.
Inside, the room was crowded with people in all kinds of costumes from the standard Robin Hood and Maid Marian to the wildly fantastic. He saw at least a dozen Marie Antoinettes and none of the ones in view were Lois. There were several Superman impersonators as well as a number of Batmen and Batwomen, a Luke Skywalker with the inevitable lightsaber and half a dozen Darth Vaders. Princess Leia was also evident in different parts of the room, and a Tin Woodman brandished his aluminum axe as he danced with Tweetie. Slowly but steadily, he wended his way through the crowd toward the back of the room. There was Lois, he saw, in conversation with a man dressed in a metallic tunic with a sword swinging from his belt and sporting a small beard. Clark paused for an instant, trying to dredge up in his mind who the fellow was supposed to be, but nothing came to mind immediately. Well, the committee handling the drawing was probably wondering where he was, so he'd better go check in.
The guy in the metallic shirt was still hanging around. She excused herself in an undertone and hurried after Superman, aware that the bearded man was looking after her with a faint smile.
There Superman was, talking to the Mayor's wife where she sat at the table reserved for the people actually putting on this event. The woman was leaning forward to emphasize her decolletage and batting her eyelashes at the hero, who, to his credit, did not appear to notice. He smiled and nodded several times, and got to his feet at last.
"Superman!" Lois called.
He turned his head and smiled. "Hello, Lois. Are you here for the party or on duty for the Planet?"
"The second, I'm afraid," Lois said. "Can I get an interview?"
He hesitated and then nodded. "Sure. The drawing isn't until ten."
"Maybe I'll stick around," Lois said, trying to sound enthusiastic, but she could see he wasn't fooled even as she spoke. "I've got a ticket, too. Where do you intend to take the winner?"
"I was thinking of dinner in Italy," he said. "And then dancing in Brazil."
"It sounds nice," Lois said, wondering why the usual enthusiasm wasn't there. Superman was just as handsome as he always was, but somehow she kept thinking of Clark as she had seen him in the Jeep, asking her if she was sure she didn't want him to take her place. He had known how much she hated these things and wanted to help. Clark was probably one of the few real friends she had and certainly the closest. She wished she had been able to spend the evening with him. If he'd been able to come with her, she was sure she'd have enjoyed the party far more than she was going to.
Superman smiled in sympathy. "You don't like masquerade balls do you?"
"It's not that," she said. "I wish Clark were here with me, that's all."
She thought his eyes widened a little. "Clark?"
"Yes." She didn't think that needed explaining.
"I'm sure he wishes he could be here, too," Superman said. He raised his head as the orchestra began to play a waltz. "Even if I'm not Clark, would you like to dance?"
She summoned a smile. This was her dream man, after all. "Sure. But shouldn't you be dancing with somebody important?"
"I'm my own man until I get auctioned off," he said with a grin.
She found herself laughing. "I notice there are almost twice as many women here tonight as men. Is there an alternate prize for married women?"
"I sure hope so!" Superman said, a look of comical dismay on his face. "Actually, I'm pretty sure there is."
"That's good," Lois said. "I guess being the world's most eligible bachelor has its downside, huh?"
"Actually, I'm really not that eligible," he said, surprising her. "I can't get married, Lois. Any woman I married would be the target of every criminal in the world who wanted to control me. Some of them have already targeted you, just because people know you're a friend of mine. Think how much worse it would be if I had a wife."
"I suppose so," she said. "If you ever did marry, I guess you'd have to do it secretly."
"At the very least!" he said.
They were silent for several minutes, moving in time to the music. Superman was an excellent dancer, Lois found herself thinking. As good as Perry, or Clark. She wondered where he had learned it.
"Clark said he learned ballroom dancing from a Nigerian princess," she remarked.
"Yes. He told me that once, not long after we first met. I guess it must have been while he was traveling. Where did you learn?"
"Here and there," he said, and dipped her deeply. "A friend of mine taught me most of it."
Again they were silent.
"So," Lois said after a minute, "what are you going to do on this date besides dinner and dancing?"
"Probably take her for a night flight above the clouds before I take her home," Superman said. "After all, this is for charity. I owe it to whoever wins to make it a good date, if she was willing to pay money for it."
"You always honor the spirit of a deal as well as the letter of it, don't you?"
The music ended and Superman bowed slightly to her. "Thanks for the dance, Lois."
"You're welcome. You're a very good dancer."
"Thank you. So are you." He led her from the dance floor. "I guess I need to dance with some of those 'important people' you mentioned. I hope you'll save another one for me before the drawing."
"Sure," she said. "Do you see an empty chair anywhere? I might as well sit down for a while."
"Right this way," Superman said. "And let me get you something to eat before I take off. It's the least I can do."
"Thanks," she said.
When she stepped out into the chilly evening, the first thing she noticed was that it had clouded over, and a brisk breeze was blowing. She headed for the lot, feeling in the pocket of her coat for the keys. At least Halloween was over for another year.
A sharp blow to the base of her skull ended that thought and every other one for the time being. She didn't feel it when she hit the ground.
"Darling, wake up." The voice was one that she almost recognized. Lois opened her eyes to a raging headache. There was a wet cloth on her forehead, and she was lying in bed in a luxurious room that looked vaguely familiar. The bright light in her eyes made her close them again with a wince.
"Turn down the light," the voice said. "Darling, are you all right? What happened?"
Slowly, Lois opened one eye, but the brilliant light had faded to a soft, rosy glow. She opened the other one and turned her head to see who was speaking.
Lex Luthor was sitting in an armchair beside the bed, a concerned expression on his face, and behind him a woman in the uniform of a nurse hovered nervously. Lois closed her eyes again with a faint moan. Somehow she must have fallen and hit her head. She was having hallucinations. It was the only explanation.
"Lie still," Luthor's voice said gently. "Gretchen says you have a mild concussion. This is the result of your refusing an escort. Your independent ways are a constant source of concern to me, you know."
A pair of competent hands removed the wet cloth and Lois heard a sloshing of water. The cloth was replaced by another one. She lay still with her eyes closed, listening to Lex Luthor's voice and trying to figure out what was going on. She had to be dreaming, but until now she never remembered feeling this kind of throbbing headache in a dream. She certainly didn't remember the feel of water trickling down her forehead, or recall the scent of lavender that wafted from the sheets, or the smell of the expensive cologne that Lex always wore.
Lex's murmuring voice ceased and she felt his hand caress her cheek. "I imagine your head is throbbing," he said. "I'll let you alone to rest. Gretchen says giving you something for pain isn't a wise idea, or I would have insisted that it be done. Rest, my dear. We'll talk when you feel better."
"Thank you," she whispered, grateful that his voice had stopped once again. Even the sound made painful sparks shoot through the darkness in front of her closed eyes. She heard the faint tread of feet on thick carpet, and then a door opened and closed.
"Mrs. Luthor?" The voice of the nurse broke the silence. "Is there anything I can do for you?"
"No," she whispered. It had to be a dream, she thought. A nightmare worthy of Halloween. It was the only explanation. When she woke up, things would be all right, Clark would be here and together they could laugh about her weird dream.
But something about the situation kept her quiet. Something about all this was too chillingly solid. If this was a dream it was the most realistic one that she had ever had. What on Earth was going on here?
When she woke again the room was still dark, which was understandable once she realized that thick curtains had been pulled across a very large window. Wherever she was, she certainly wasn't in the bed in her apartment. Fumbling in the thick darkness, she found a lamp and switched it on.
When her eyes had adjusted to the light, she looked around in shock, and then a sense of déjà vu mixed with growing horror. She knew this room. It was the room that she and Lex Luthor had planned together in the Lex Tower penthouse - just before the disastrous wedding that had culminated in Lex throwing himself from the balcony. This was utterly impossible. The penthouse of Lex Tower had been closed up while the various details of Lex's estate were thrashed out. The break-up of the Luthor business empire was still in progress, but recently it had been announced that William B. Caldwell, the business magnate and multimillionaire, had purchased the penthouse for a fabulous sum.
She closed her eyes and opened them again, looking around in the faint hope that the scene would have changed, but it hadn't. She was in the bedroom that she and Lex would have shared if she had not drawn back at the last instant, if Perry, Jimmy and Jack hadn't interrupted her wedding. What the consequences to her might have been if they had not, after she had refused to say "I do", was a question she had always wondered about. Lex had always appeared to love her, but now she knew that Lex Luthor was a sociopath, a monster in a handsome body, who was capable of and guilty of unspeakable evil.
What, her mind repeated like a stuck recording, was going on here? Could she still be dreaming? If so, it was the most substantial dream she had ever had. Slowly, she slid her feet to the floor. A satin dressing gown lay neatly folded at the foot of the bed, and two fuzzy bedroom slippers were placed on the thick carpet, slippers made out of chinchilla fur. She slid her feet into them and made her way to the curtained windows. Almost automatically, she located the switch that opened the curtains and pushed it, and watched in a bemused way as they slid silently open.
Beyond the window was a wide balcony, and below that she could see the city of Metropolis spread out below her. She knew this view. She was definitely in Lex Tower, all right.
If she had not been warned by that very painful awakening the night before, she thought, she might have charged out in her typical fashion and demanded to know what was going on. She'd never thought she could be grateful to a headache, but this time she was. It had probably saved her from a fatal error. If she was dreaming, it was the clearest, most detailed dream she had ever had, and if she wasn't -- well, it was better to keep quiet until she figured out what was really going on.
Cautiously, she felt the back of her head and winced as she discovered that it was extremely sore. She certainly hadn't dreamed that part, unless she was dreaming about imagined pain.
So what had happened? She had been leaving the Halloween Ball, and something had hit her. And she had awakened here. Wherever here was.
Well, whatever was happening, it was evident that Lex, if that had really been him last night, thought that she was his wife. What would he think if she started claiming not to remember marrying him; in fact remembered him jumping from his office balcony to his death on the pavement a hundred-plus stories below? He was bound to think she was seriously crazy, or at the very least that it wasn't safe for her to be wandering around alone. And if she was going to figure this thing out, assuming that it was possible, she suspected she was going to need some time by herself. She had better not inform him of his error until she had had a little time to scope out the lay of the land. It seemed like the most sensible thing that she could do. If she were truly dreaming, then it wouldn't matter, but if by some crazy chance all this was real, it was smarter not to let on to the people around her that she wasn't who they thought she was. Unless she somehow really was, and everything that she remembered was the dream.
But that couldn't be, could it?
Well, the first thing to do was to find out what day it was and what the situation was out there in Metropolis. And if Clark was still around. She recalled him telling her that Superman had claimed Lex had intended to kill him. If Lex was alive, was Clark dead? Was Superman still here or had Lex finally managed to drive him away? A little quiver of panic began to beat in tune with the tiny throb of pain that remained from last night's adventure and she forced it back. She mustn't act out of fear. She had to keep calm. Taking a deep breath, she turned and made her way to the enormous closet that had been intended to hold her clothing. She opened it and stared at the multitude of outfits, all for her. There was more clothing here than she could wear in a lifetime, she thought, but after some consideration she chose a neat pantsuit. Better that than a dress, she thought. Who knew how much activity she was going to have to engage in, after all? There was a good chance that Lex would have bodyguards following her if she chose to go out today; it was a little surprising that she hadn't been followed last night -- but then maybe she had been. Besides, last night she hadn't been here.
She shook her head carefully, mindful of the borderline pain she still felt from the blow on the head that had knocked her out. How on Earth was she supposed to explain the contradictions to herself? Her memories of the last year were of working at the rebuilt Daily Planet beside Clark and Jimmy Olsen, with Perry in charge. If she wasn't completely crazy, and she wasn't dreaming, what had happened?
She laid out her clothing on the bed and went into the enormous bathroom to shower. Hopefully none of the maids would show up until she was finished getting dressed. She turned on the water and adjusted the temperature, still thinking. All right, the situation was obviously impossible on the face of it, but she was going to have to act as if it were real until she found out what was actually going on.
Another thought occurred to her, only adding to the confusion that she already felt. If she had arrived in this crazy dream world last night, then where was the Lois Lane who was supposed to be here? She must exist. Lex was here, and he obviously remembered a Lois. And she hadn't been here before, had she?
If she went back to sleep again, maybe when she woke up, all this craziness would be gone. Maybe she would wake up in a hospital, the victim of a mugging, and the whole insane situation would turn out to be some kind of wild hallucination inspired by the blow that had made the back of her head so sore.
Only, going to sleep right now wasn't going to be possible. She was too keyed up and upset by what seemed a literal impossibility. She wasn't a bit sleepy.
She dropped her nightgown to the floor and stepped into the shower. She'd better hurry. She had a lot of things to figure out today.
The breakfast room was empty, but Lois took a seat at the table and rang the little crystal bell sitting in the middle of it. After a moment, a uniformed maid entered the room. She seemed surprised to discover Lois there. "Mrs. Luthor? Can I help you, ma'am?"
"Yes," Lois said with an assumption of calm that she didn't feel. "I'd like my breakfast served here this morning -- or afternoon. And if there's a newspaper around, I'd like to see it."
"Um...yes, ma'am," the woman said, seeming a little flustered. "Right away, ma'am."
Mindful of the possibility of observers, Lois leaned back in the chair, contemplating the view out the wide window that made up one wall of the breakfast room. The buildings of Old Town were visible from here, and she remembered Lex telling her of his plans to revitalize the district by rebuilding the ancient structures with modern replicas of the older, worn and decrepit ones. There would be new restaurants and a bazaar, he told her, and shops where the merchants could sell their wares to the tourists. There would be the street vendors with the sidewalk shows of art and pottery, and exotic little establishments that sold perfume, incense, scented candles and hand-made jewelry to visitors. He had planned, she remembered, to buy out the independent merchants and replace them with franchises that answered ultimately to Lexall Enterprises, which ran similar operations in several large cities across the country. The idea had made her vaguely uneasy even then, although she had refused to listen to the feeble voice of caution that had pricked at the edges of her mind. She had shoved the thought away, telling herself that Lex knew what was best for the city, submerging the instinct of an investigative reporter that told her that something about the plans didn't smell right.
She wondered if, in this world, Lex had succeeded with that scheme as well.
The door that led to the hall opened and Nigel St. John entered, bearing a folded newspaper. "You wished to see a newspaper, Madam?"
Lois cleared her throat. "Yes, thank you, Nigel."
"I trust you are feeling well, Madam. Mr. Luthor was most distressed last night when you were found. He has set inquiries about for information concerning who could have assaulted you."
"I'm afraid I don't remember much," Lois said, quite truthfully. "Do you know what happened?"
"No, Madam. Only that you were found in the parking lot where you had parked your vehicle. You were wearing your costume, and your engagement and wedding rings were missing."
"I suppose that isn't surprising," Lois said.
"No, Madam." Nigel laid the folded newspaper neatly on the table. "I'm pleased to see that you are feeling better this morning. Mr. Luthor wished for me to inform you that he will be occupied with business matters for several hours, but that he hopes you will not feel obligated to go to work today, and will take the opportunity to rest and recover from your experience."
"I will," Lois said.
"I'll inform Mr. Luthor," Nigel said. "I will, of course, be available at once should you require anything."
"Thank you," Lois said.
Nigel bowed slightly and withdrew. Lois shivered. This whole situation was enough to give anyone the chills. How was she supposed to maintain this pretense? She had to figure out what was happening, or wake up, or something, pronto!
The door that led to the kitchen opened and a liveried servant emerged with a covered tray held before him. Lois smiled at him and waited while the man set a plate loaded with more food than she ever ate at any meal in front of her. With silent efficiency, he swiftly set the table, poured coffee, set out low fat creamer and sugar substitute, and poured ice water into the water glass.
"Thank you," Lois said automatically.
The man smiled fractionally at her and turned to leave. Lois was left alone, but she had the feeling that she was still under observation. Well, no one was going to learn much if she merely ate her breakfast and read the morning paper. She fell to on the oatmeal that obviously had been prepared from scratch by someone who knew what he was doing, and then started in on the bacon and eggs. After last night, she reasoned, she probably needed the fuel to recover.
The newspaper, she noted, was the Metropolis Star, and there was an article on the front page that caught her attention at once.
"Blackout in Metropolis", by Clark Kent. And beneath it, "Plot to blackmail government uncovered."
Her heart jumped into her throat at the sight of her partner's name. Clark was alive and writing for the Star!
Slowly, she laid the paper down and poured sugar substitute and creamer into her coffee. She took her time stirring, and lifted it to her lips, careful not to show any reaction to the information. But the newspaper headline had given her hope. If she could somehow get hold of Clark and talk to him, tell him what had happened to her, maybe she had a chance of solving this incredibly confusing situation that she had fallen into.
"But Mrs. Luthor, are you certain you should go out? Mr. Luthor said specifically that you should rest."
Lois nodded. "Yes, I know, Nigel. I'm not going to work or for any marathon runs. I'm just going for a walk. I get claustrophobia in the penthouse. I promise to simply stroll along, and not exert myself, and you can tell Lex, if he asks, that I'll be back in a couple of hours."
The butler looked doubtful but stood aside and she stepped into the private elevator.
It bore her to the first floor, and Lois tried to keep an eye out without seeming to as she left the building by the private entrance. With the 20/20 vision of hindsight, she knew that during their engagement, Lex had undoubtedly kept track of her in more ways than one. Certainly,investigators probing into the dealings of LexCorp had discovered briefcases wired for eavesdropping and corporate offices used by his subordinates bugged. Lex hadn't even trusted his partners-in-crime, which probably explained how he had managed to reach the level of crime boss that he had become. She'd thought that she, herself, had been free of such observation until she had taken the gold compact that he had given her as a "token of affection" and, in a burst of temper, thrown it against the wall. That was when she had discovered that he hadn't trusted her any more than the others. Amid the broken pieces, she had discovered a tiny microphone with a transmitter that had been hidden beneath the mirror. The only place that had been free of such devices had been the penthouse itself. Apparently Lex hadn't liked the idea of others, even men in his own employ, spying on him -- which made sense considering how much he had to hide.
She made no attempt to avoid location finders or even human observation at this point. The whole exercise was to make Lex think that she really had gone out for nothing more than a walk. She strolled toward Centennial Park, and it took less than ten minutes to locate her tail: a scruffy youth who seemed to have no particular destination in mind except to meander along the opposite sidewalk, a skateboard under one arm and a look of boredom on his features.
She hadn't taken a handbag with her, preferring to stuff a handful of loose change into one pocket, and several twenties into her bra, just in case she needed the cash. In fact, she had nothing with her that was likely to be used to conceal a microphone. That was deliberate on her part. She wanted whoever was monitoring her to get used to the idea that she didn't take such things with her if she was just going out for a harmless walk. Lex's spy could report later that all she had done was walk in Centennial Park. Near the park, she stopped at a hot dog stand and purchased a hot dog, which she munched as she strolled along. At another stand she bought a cup of hot coffee and a few moments later was sitting on a wooden bench in the park, sipping it carefully and watching the man who was following her from the corner of her eye. He wasn't likely to be able to tell that she was doing so. Sunglasses had their uses besides protecting her eyes from the sun and hiding her identity from the media.
The tail had taken a sudden interest in the ducks in the pond a short way from her, and was tossing them bits of bread from his own hot dog bun. Apparently her idea had seemed like a good one to him, she thought whimsically, before returning to the puzzle that she had come no nearer to solving during her walk.
Metropolis looked exactly the same as before. It even smelled the same, and never in her memory had she ever dreamed of smells. If this was a dream it was by far the most detailed one that she had ever had, and she was starting to very much fear that it wasn't a dream.
Then how was she to explain her very clear memories of the last several months? Was she completely insane? If she was, then there was no point of going farther with this, because all her memories of what had been discovered about Lex were false. But if she was sure of anything, it was that her mind was sound. If it wasn't, she might as well act as if it was, because just giving in to this situation wasn't something that she could do.
Well, there was one way to prove to herself that she wasn't crazy, and that was to do a little investigating and dig up evidence of some of Lex's criminal activities for herself. And if Clark hadn't given up investigating Lex, then he would probably be willing to help her once he realized that she had finally seen the light. Assuming that he was willing to speak to her at all.
That thought brought her up sharply. Clark had hated the thought of her marriage to Luthor. He had been angry and she'd thought at the time, jealous, although he had taken back his declaration of love later. She wasn't completely sure that she believed him, but had been content to let the subject lie. Only now, it might have some bearing on any attempt she made to contact him. And if she did, what would Lex do?
It was just as well that she hadn't jumped into any course of action without thinking it over, she decided. How long had she been out here? She glanced at her watch, and another thought occurred to her.
Lex had bugged her compact. How about her watch? It was a beautiful watch, made of Black Hills gold, with the traditional grapevine pattern, and the band was also made of the same material. She obviously hadn't worn it with her costume last night, since she had found it on her dresser this morning. Lex had given it to her for their three-month anniversary, judging by the engraving on the back. And it could easily contain a tracking device. As a matter of fact, she should suspect any piece of jewelry or any item that she carried with her to have one, if Lex gave it to her.
But she could still use that to her advantage. He didn't know she knew, so she could use the fact to establish her complete innocence. It was just past two. Clark wouldn't be home for a while. Lex would be watching her closely today, but maybe tomorrow he would be less alert, especially since she had done nothing today that she hadn't said she would do. All she had done was take a walk to the park.
As a matter of fact, strolling around the park, enjoying the fall colors sounded like a good idea. Lex might wonder if she only came here to eat a hot dog and drink coffee. She got up from the bench, pitched her coffee cup into the nearest trash container and began to walk along the nearest path into the park.
The fall colors were as breathtaking as she had expected them to be. The hitch was that she didn't care. She made a show of admiring the trees, brilliant in their cloaks of gold, orange and bronze, but her mind was busy turning over plans to gather evidence on her supposed husband.
At least some of Lex's criminal activities had come to light over the past months, so she had some idea of where to look. Investigators had located many files in his office, as if he didn't want them anywhere out of his control. Others had turned up in a heavy vault in the basement of Lex Tower. She had managed to be present when the thing was actually opened. It was a combination lock, she recalled, with five numbers. She couldn't open it without the combination -- but Superman could. If she could get him to help her. She would go down there tomorrow and scout out the lay of the land. And she could conveniently "forget" to wear her watch or any other item that might contain a transmitter. It was just as well to see what she was up against.
It was as she turned at last onto the path that would lead her back to Lex Tower, that the man passed her. He was an unremarkable fellow, with reddish-brown hair and a short beard, but the sight of him produced a sharp stab of memory. She had seen this man before, and it had been recently, but she couldn't quite place the occasion. She only knew it had been before she had awakened in Lex's penthouse. After a few seconds, she stopped and turned to look after him, but he had already disappeared abound a bend of the path.
"I only wanted to take a walk in the park," Lois said. "I get claustrophobic in the penthouse. I'm all right, Lex. Nothing but a mild headache from the whole thing. I'll be fine after a good night's sleep -- without somebody waking me up every few minutes."
His face relaxed in an indulgent smile. "How were the fall colors?"
"It was beautiful," she said, truthfully.
"We should both walk there, tomorrow. Tell me, my love, would you prefer to live in a house in the country?"
"No," she said with a smile. "I'm a city girl, Lex. The park is enough."
"I wish you would take an escort, my dear."
"I can't be alone if someone's with me." She smiled at him as guilelessly as she could. "I don't have much privacy anyway as the wife of the world's third-richest man. I have to take it when I can."
"Sorry," she said. "Habit. Anyway, no one realized who I was."
"One day someone will, and you'll have a crowd of media --"
"I'm part of the media," she pointed out. "I can handle them."
"My indomitable Lois," he said. "Very well, we'll shelve the subject for now. What are your plans for this afternoon?"
"I thought I'd take a nap," she said. "I didn't get much sleep last night with the nurse waking me up all the time."
"Gretchen's orders," he said. "It's standard procedure in case of a concussion."
"I know, but it doesn't do much for the patient's sleep. Anyway, I thought I'd make up for it with a couple of hours' nap this afternoon."
"An excellent idea. I told Andre to prepare your favorite dishes this evening, so you'll be rested enough to enjoy it, and hopefully the headache will be gone by then. I have a meeting this afternoon -- a videoconference with my offices in Singapore -- so I'm going to be occupied."
"All right," Lois said. "Enjoy your business meeting."
He brushed a hand across her cheek. "Rest well, my dear."
She smiled automatically, but as he walked out of the room she remained frozen with suddenly realized horror. He was her husband in this strange reality, and that enormous bed in the huge bedroom upstairs was meant for both of them. She hoped fervently that tonight he wouldn't expect anything from her, after her assault at the Halloween ball last night. And maybe before tomorrow night, she would have found the way out of this place -- whatever it was. Because if she didn't, she was going to have to think of a way to avoid any of Lois Luthor's wifely duties, and if she knew Lex as well as she thought she did, he wasn't likely to take no for an answer.
She had been thinking about this situation almost constantly since this morning, and had begun to come to some conclusions. If this wasn't all a hallucination or a dream, then what had happened to her? Common sense said this couldn't be, and yet it was. There was nothing in her knowledge that could explain it but unless she was going to accept the notion that she was completely insane, she was going to have to make a few pretty far-out assumptions. She'd seen a television show recently that had a few ideas that might explain what otherwise couldn't be.
Lois laced her fingers behind her head, thinking about it.
Suppose the time in her world was like a line on a piece of paper, and suppose there were a lot of parallel lines, like on a sheet of ruled notepaper, all representing other timelines. And suppose she could only walk along one line -- unless something moved her to another one. Was that possible? A world similar to hers, but of alternate chances, alternate choices, where things had worked out a little differently than in her own...
It sounded like wild science fiction, even fantasy, and under ordinary circumstances she wouldn't have given the idea a second's consideration. But three years ago, the idea of a man from an alien planet, who flew around the skies of Metropolis, would have been just as incredible and just as unbelievable.
Suppose, then, that someone had found a way to accomplish this weird kind of time travel, and suppose that somebody, or someone who knew what he had found, wanted very much to get rid of Lois Lane without killing her and having the inconvenience of a body to deal with -- and maybe as a cruel joke into the bargain.
It might result in what had happened to her. And maybe that somebody would come by occasionally to enjoy the results of his handiwork. It was barely possible. If she accepted this theory, she would have to remember to watch for someone keeping an eye on her besides Lex and his minions -- someone that she remembered from her own world.
The man she had seen today at the park came to mind. It was interesting how he had seemed to turn up out of nowhere like that. On the other hand, he might be totally innocent -- or not. But she would be on the watch for him if he should show up again.
Surprisingly, now that she had come up with at least a partial theory for the impossible situation in which she had landed, she found that fatigue was creeping over her and she was glad to close her eyes. Lois turned on her side and drifted off to sleep.
She pushed herself slowly upright, glancing at the clock on the nightstand. It was just after six. Lex always preferred cocktails at six-thirty and dinner at seven, she recalled. It gave her about twenty minutes to get dressed.
The knock came again. "Mrs. Luthor?"
"I'm awake," Lois called. "I'll be there in twenty minutes!"
"Yes, ma'am," the voice said. "Dinner will be served in the study tonight, ma'am."
Lois turned on the lamp and stood up, yawning. She felt better, although the back of her head was still extremely tender. She went to the closet and began to examine her choice of clothing. She had no idea what Lex expected her to wear except that it would have to be dressy, and she knew he preferred her to be clothed elegantly, so finally she decided on the simple little black dress and a string of milky pearls. She hunted around in the enormous shoetree to locate the shoes that went with the dress, and hurried into the bathroom to refresh her makeup before dressing. It was as she was struggling to zip the dress, and peering in the mirror to see herself from every angle, that she noticed the elegant, black shoulder bag made of leather hanging neatly from the antique wooden coat tree in one corner of the room, obviously placed there deliberately by human hands. The real Lois Luthor's purse, if the LL embroidered on the leather was any clue. It certainly wasn't likely to be Lex's.
She finished zipping the dress, ran the brush through her hair and crossed to the coat tree.
The bag was moderately heavy, as she expected it to be. She had always had a tendency to load her purses to the breaking point, and apparently the elegant Mrs. Luthor had continued with the habit. Quickly, Lois rummaged through the purse and emerged with an expensive leather wallet, tastefully tooled for a lady and, flipping it open, she found herself looking at Lois Luthor's driver's license, her press pass, her membership card for the National Organization of Woman Journalists, and half a dozen credit cards. Apparently her counterpart hadn't taken the bag with her when she had gone to the Halloween ball. Lois frowned. She hadn't either, of course, but she had taken a small, satin purse, with her wallet, lipstick, compact and car keys in it. There were no keys here, but the gold compact that she had broken in her world, only to find the eavesdropping device, was in a side pocket. This was definitely strange.
A glance at her watch told her that it was almost time for her to join Lex in the study for dinner. Quickly, she replaced the wallet and closed the bag, noting without surprise that a cellular phone was clipped to an inner pocket of the purse. Lois Luthor had apparently failed to take her cellular phone with her last night as well. That was pretty odd, too. She would have to think about this later, but keeping Lex waiting probably wasn't a good idea. Taking a last, quick glance at her image in the mirror, she gathered her courage and left the bedroom, closing the door behind her.
Lex was waiting beside the elevator when the doors opened on the lower level and when he saw her he smiled the very familiar smile that she remembered. "You look beautiful tonight, my dear."
"And you look handsome, as always," Lois countered.
He offered her his elbow, and they entered the study. The little table where she had eaten with him many times before, when they had been dating, was already set and waiting.
He held her chair with perfect courtesy and after she was seated, he took the place across from her. Lex never neglected such small details, she recalled, which was one of the things that had charmed her about him in the beginning. Within a few seconds, as if it was timed -- and it probably was, she thought -- Asabi approached to set a bottle of what Lois assumed to be wine on the table, but Lex surprised her.
"Gretchen says it would be inadvisable for you to drink alcohol so soon after a concussion," he said. "Tonight we're having non-alcoholic wine. I trust that will be satisfactory."
She nodded, and he picked up the bottle to pour for both of them. A second servant approached with bowls of soup, and the dinner began.
Lex kept up a light conversation during the dinner, and she responded appropriately, thinking all the while that she had never noticed while he was courting her how superficial their relationship really was. Lex was an astute businessman, and apparently didn't feel it necessary for his wife to be informed about his business -- something that she had wondered a little about before, but hadn't understood why. Lex apparently loved her, but considered her, like everyone else, his intellectual inferior. His trophy wife, she thought.
"You seem a little quiet tonight," he remarked.
She smiled dutifully. "I have a little of the headache left, and the back of my head is awfully sore," she said. "I hope it will be better tomorrow."
"I'm sure it will if you take care of yourself tonight," Lex said. "My prescription for you would be to go to bed soon after dinner and to sleep late tomorrow."
"I intend to," Lois said. "The nap this afternoon seemed to help."
He nodded. "As I was sure it would. I don't suppose I can convince you to allow me to send an escort in my place when you attend these charity things, my dear. I know I'd certainly feel better about your safety. Last night could have as easily turned out to be fatal."
"I'll remember to be more cautious the next time," Lois said. "Lex, I'm so sorry about the rings."
He shrugged. "They can be replaced. Both were covered with insurance."
"Don't fret about them, Lois," he said. "I regard them as a small loss. Next time it could be your life."
"You knew when we married that my job was sometimes dangerous," she said. "Just because I'm your wife doesn't mean that there aren't some people out there who might still want revenge -- or realize that I might be wearing expensive jewelry. I won't get complacent again. I promise."
"If I find out who was behind it, he's going to regret it," Lex said. "I've put inquiries around in certain circles. People are looking for any sign of your rings. If we find them, they should lead us to the thief."
"I imagine you have pretty efficient investigators on your staff," she said. "I'm surprised anyone actually dared to assault me, actually."
"So was I, a little; however, there are always fools in any group. This fool is going to regret his action."
Lois nodded and decided that a change of subject would be in order. "So, how did your business meeting go?" she asked.
"Very well," he replied. "LexCorp acquired a controlling share of Belco Petroleum, so I'm very pleased with the whole endeavor."
"Another triumph to add to a formidable list of them," Lois said, laying her fork down. "Congratulations."
"Thank you." He appeared to accept her praise as his due. Asabi materialized silently to remove the plates and a moment later reappeared with dessert. Lois ate half of hers and laid down her fork. "It's delicious as usual, but if I eat all this I'll be paying the consequences in extra treadmill time for a week at least."
Lex smiled indulgently. "I doubt it. You have a beautiful figure, Lois, and it will take a lot more than Andre's chocolate cream pie to ruin it."
"Only because I work to keep it that way. I want you to be proud of me," she added.
"Then you've succeeded, my dear. I'm very proud of you. But now --" He glanced at his watch. "Gretchen specifically ordered that you be in bed by nine tonight. Hopefully that will clear up any lingering effects of your ordeal, and our lives will get back to normal." He stood up. "Would you mind if I escorted you upstairs again?"
"Of course not," Lois said. "I'd be hurt if you didn't."
She watched as he preened slightly at her compliment, and pushed back her chair.
He escorted her to the bedroom and kissed her knuckles lightly. "I have a few more business details to take care of, but I'll be up in an hour or so. Sweet dreams, my dear. Don't wait up for me."
After he had gone, Lois changed slowly out of her dinner dress. She'd had a reprieve tonight, but that was all it was. If she didn't come up with some sort of results by tomorrow night, she was going to be in the soup.
Pulling on the satin nightgown that she found laid out for her on her pillow, she found herself wondering, not for the first time, where the Lois whose place she was taking was. It was obvious that something had happened, since she wasn't here, exposing Lois as a fraud, but where was she? Apparently she had gone to the Metro Halloween Ball and disappeared.
For the first time, she wondered if the watch, lying on the dresser, and the elegant shoulder bag hanging from the coat tree might have been left there by design. Could her disappearance have been planned by Lois Luthor, herself? If Lois was right, her counterpart had left behind everything that could possibly be a tracking device. The watch, the compact, the cell phone and who knew what else?
The thought was a new one, and she tried to consider it dispassionately. Was it possible that Lex Luthor's wife had discovered something about her husband, and as a consequence had decided to disappear? What could she have discovered?
Put that way, the field was wide open. Assuming that this Lex Luthor was as deeply involved in crime as the one in her world had been, and that the other Lois's tendency to snoop hadn't disappeared with her marriage to Lex, just about anything was possible. But if Lois Luthor had discovered something that had made her run, it might be very important that Lois Lane find out, too.
Lois glanced at the clock on her nightstand. She had been here for fifteen minutes, and Lex had been extremely agreeable, even insistent, about her going to bed by nine. Maybe it was because of concern for her welfare, but maybe it wasn't. The thought occurred to her and, a second later, she had translated the thought into action. If it should happen that Lex was simply finishing a bit of business that he hadn't had time to take care of before dinner, that was okay. She would explain that she felt lonely in the big room, all by herself. On the other hand, if something else was going on, she wanted to know.
She slipped her feet into the furry bedroom slippers and hastily shoved her arms into the sleeves of Lois Luthor's dressing gown. A moment later, she was striding down the hallway toward the stairs that led to the lower level of the penthouse.
The servants had apparently finished cleaning up in the study and were back in the kitchen or servants' quarters, or something, for she saw no one when she arrived at the lower level and peeked cautiously around the corner. The hall was dim, lit only by the nightlights that glowed in every electric socket. Quietly, she moved down the hallway, striving to look casual and unhurried, toward the door of Lex's office. She could see a faint line of brighter light along the bottom of the door that suggested that her supposed husband was in there.
Outside the door, she paused, listening.
There was movement in there and, as her ears adjusted, the sound of voices leaking faintly through the closed door became evident. She identified Lex's distinctive voice, and an instant later, the voice of Mrs. Cox, Lex's personal assistant.
She stood still, straining her ears to catch the words. "...Under no circumstances are you to allow Lois to become suspicious," Lex's voice was saying. "Kent is a thorn in my side. His series on the gunrunning operation was much too close to the truth for comfort. I want him removed."
Gunrunning operation? Lois stood still, barely breathing. And Clark. Lex was after Clark. She had to warn him as soon as possible.
"Of course, Lex," Mrs. Cox's voice said.
"Secondly, Superman." Lex's voice hadn't changed its inflection at all. He was talking about killing a man, she thought, and it was as if he were discussing any ordinary business. But that was what he was doing, she thought. Discussing business. "He'll have to be immobilized. He somehow escaped the cage at the wedding, so the next time he'll have to be chained."
"He'll simply break the chains unless --"
"You underestimate me, Mrs. Cox. I still have the cage. If he's chained, he won't have the mobility to escape from it again. It's that simple. Now all I have to do is provide an irresistible lure. I think my dear Lois will serve, once more. Of course, she is to know absolutely nothing about it."
"Naturally," Mrs. Cox said.
"Have there been any results concerning the rings yet?"
"None," Mrs. Cox's voice said. "Whoever took them is apparently lying low. He may have realized by now that the woman he assaulted was your wife. The rings could be at the bottom of Hobbs Bay."
"I doubt it," Lex's voice said. "The diamond is worth half a million as is. Cut, it's worth almost as much. I trust the gem cutters who do work of that sort are under observation?"
"Then that concludes our business for the evening," Lex said, pleasantly. "Now, as my wife is still recovering from her concussion, I'll need a substitute tonight."
"Of course," Mrs. Cox's voice said. There was silence for several seconds. Then Mrs. Cox's voice, sounding almost breathless. "It's been too long, Lex." Her voice trailed off into a faint moan.
Lois turned and walked away in disgust. For a short time she had wondered if perhaps the Lex of this strange world might be a better person than the Lex of her memories, but in the space of five minutes that small hope had been killed and buried. Lex was the same criminal here that he had been in her own world.
What had that business about a cage meant? And chaining Superman up? But a cage wouldn't hold Superman unless there had been Kryptonite somewhere nearby to prevent him from simply bursting the bars.
But in her world, Superman had told Clark, and Clark had told her how, the day before her wedding, Lex had imprisoned him in a cage, the bars of which were coated with Kryptonite. He had intended to let Superman die in that cage, and it had only been the Man of Steel's determination, combined with Lex's arrogance, and sheer dumb luck, that had allowed him to free himself. If that had happened here, and he still possessed the cage, it sounded to her as if Lex was planning not only Clark's killing, but the cold-blooded murder of Superman as well. If Lois Luthor had discovered that, that might have been the reason that she had disappeared.
At a measured rate that showed no sign of the agitation she felt, Lois climbed the steps back toward the upper level. One of the maids was coming down the stairs and looked at her in surprise. "Mrs. Luthor?"
"Do you know where my husband is?" Lois asked, keeping her voice level. "I was looking for him."
"I believe he's in his office, ma'am."
"At this hour? I swear, the man thinks of nothing but business. All right; I don't want to interrupt him if he's working. I guess it can wait until morning." She continued past the maid and up the steps, keeping her expression blank. Three steps farther up, she turned. "Would you please tell whoever is in the kitchen right now that I'd like a cup of hot chocolate in my room? Since I'm not allowed to take anything for sleep, the hot chocolate will have to do."
"At once, Mrs. Luthor," the maid said.
"Thank you," Lois said. She continued on up the steps.
Ten minutes later, in the master bedroom, she found herself pacing back and forth, trying to decide what to do with the information she had acquired. Somehow she had to get a message to Clark, but a phone call from here was bound to be monitored, and the cell phone in Lois Luthor's purse most likely was, as well. Somehow she had to figure out how to get out of here to warn him that Lex had ordered him killed, and was after Superman as well.
There was a soft rapping on the door and Nigel St John's voice said, "Mrs. Luthor?"
Her heart jumped before she remembered that she had sent for hot chocolate. This was probably it. Quickly she pulled off her dressing gown, kicked off her slippers and scrambled into bed. "Come in!" she called.
The door opened, revealing Nigel St. John with a silver tray, on which reposed her hot chocolate. The butler entered the room and set the tray neatly on the bed, across her lap. It was, she realized, a tray designed for just this purpose. "Is there anything else you need, Madam?" he inquired.
"No, thank you," Lois said. "Is Lex still working? I was hoping he wouldn't stay up too late tonight."
"I believe so, Madame." If Nigel knew what was occupying Lex at this point, he didn't let on by word, expression or gesture.
"Oh," Lois said, striving to sound disappointed. "Well, thank you, Nigel."
When the butler had gone, she picked up the cup of chocolate and tasted it carefully. It was hot but not too hot, and she sipped it, thinking.
Lex was bound to be busy tomorrow, at least part of the day. Going straight to Clark after the maid had seen her on the stairs a little while ago might not be a good idea, but there were probably others who had worked at the Planet still in town, working for other publications, or in other jobs. If she looked them up, maybe she could get hold of one of the ones that she trusted to carry a message to Clark. It was worth a shot. And then, maybe, if she could get hold of some kind of evidence against Lex, Clark could take it to some of the authorities that weren't on Lex's payroll, and perhaps bring the House of Luthor down, once and for all. It was the only chance she had.
And maybe, somewhere in all this, she could figure out how this switch had been made, and how she had wound up here. If she did, there might be a very slight chance that she could get home.
Lois woke at six a.m., and became aware within seconds that she was not alone in the bed. She could hear the breathing of another person and turning her head, she saw, without surprise, that Lex was sleeping beside her.
No one had knocked on the door to awaken him, so she assumed that his habit was to sleep until seven or eight, but knowing Lex it was more likely to be seven. Quietly, she got out of bed and went into their huge bathroom to shower and dress.
The bright green jogging suit lay folded on top of the towels in the towel cupboard. She dressed quickly in the outfit, pulled on athletic socks and white jogging shoes and was ready to go. She was quite sure that the emerald green suit had been selected to make it easy for Lex's employee to spot her, so she would use it to avoid him this morning -- when she chose to do so. Again she tucked money into her bra and stuffed a handful of loose change into her pocket.
Ready at last, she pinned the note, which she had written carefully last night in preparation for a quick exit, to her pillow, and left the room.
She descended to the ground floor by way of the private elevator and left the building through the private entrance, aware that this morning a different man had replaced the youthful skateboarder of yesterday. This guy looked pretty fit, she acknowledged, and he was wearing jogging gear, so she had to assume that Lois Luthor often made a habit of running early in the morning. Fortunately, so did Lois Lane.
She started out at an easy clip, headed for Centennial Park. The morning was cool, but running was bound to warm her up pretty fast, so she kept the same pace until she reached the park.
The vendors were already there, setting up their stands for the business of the day. Lois stopped at the coffee stand to buy a cup of coffee and a sweet roll. A glance at the gold watch told her that it was seven o'clock. Lex was probably getting up about now, and would find her note telling him that she had gone for a morning run and intended to stop at the library before coming back.
The bench near the stands was empty again this morning, and she sank down to eat the breakfast that she'd skipped at the penthouse. She ate slowly, looking around at early morning Metropolis. The man assigned to follow her had somehow acquired a cup of what was probably coffee and was sitting on a bench some distance away, drinking the contents and apparently reading the early edition of the Star. Lois killed twenty minutes sitting on the bench, and then swallowed the last of her coffee, finished the final bite of sweet roll and stood up. She tossed the paper cup and napkin into a wire trash container and started down the path at a run, not looking back. Assuming Speedy back there was on his toes, she'd got a few seconds' start on him.
She ran, pacing herself. It wasn't her intention to look as if she was trying to escape -- merely to gain a little distance on him. She ran down the path, keeping her gait even and steady. It was chilly in the shade. She kept running, following the winding path through the trees and the children's playground, careful never to deliberately look back. It was his job to keep up with her, not hers to watch him, after all. She had covered two miles when she saw another bench and stopped to sink down on it to rest. A casual survey of the park landscape informed her that her tail had kept up with her. He was some distance away, sitting on another bench. His grey jogging suit was completely unremarkable, and she would have had difficulty identifying him but for the blond ponytail.
She glanced at her watch. Seven-forty-five. The library opened at nine. She had an hour and fifteen minutes to kill. Part of that time would be occupied at Broadhurst's Department Store, of course, but she doubted it would take up more than half an hour of her time, if that.
Time to give Speedy a rest and establish herself as completely harmless and unaware of any observation. She looked around again. There was a children's playground a short distance away, and she strolled toward it. Glancing around, as if to assure herself that she was unobserved, she sat down in one of the swings and began swinging.
Speedy was observing her from the shelter of a large oak tree. He leaned against the trunk, arms folded, apparently indifferent to her peculiar behavior. Lois swung higher and higher, singing softly to herself, a little children's song that her father had taught her when she had been small.
"How I do like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air, so blue,
Oh, I do think it's the pleasantest thing,
Oh, I do think it's the pleasantest thing,
Ever a child can do,
Ever a child can do!
"Up in the air and over the wall,
'Til I can see so wide,
Rivers and trees and cattle and all,
Rivers and trees and cattle and all,
Over the countryside,
Over the countryside.
"'Til I look down on the garden green,
Down on the roofs so brown,
Up in the air I go flying again,
Up in the air I go flying again,
Up in the air and down,
Up in the air and down!"
It was an old-fashioned song, but it had always been one of her favorites, although she'd never considered the reason. Now she wondered if it wasn't the song's association of swinging with flying. As a child, she had worried her mother and various observers by swinging as high as it was possible to swing. The exhilaration of soaring through the air, free of the bonds of gravity for a few seconds had been a lure that young Lois Lane had found impossible to resist. In a way, it might be one of the reasons that Superman had dazzled her so thoroughly. Not the only one, of course, but certainly one of the most astounding. That first flight with him, soaring through the air without the help of a plane or helicopter, nothing around her except the powerful arms that held her -- certainly a reason to be dazzled, all right.
Speedy's attention was wandering, she noted. She continued to swing, looking around for other observers as she did so. To her satisfaction, she could see no one, and gradually she allowed the swing to slow, swinging in lower and lower arcs until she put a foot down to stop herself. A quick glance at her watch told her that she had managed to kill another fifteen minutes. She stood up and walked through the damp grass to the path once more.
Presumably Speedy was still following her. She began to jog, not running all out, but enough to make him put some effort into keeping up. She reached a spot where the path branched and took the left-hand fork. A twist in the path around a large tree allowed her to catch, for a second, a glimpse of her tail. From the little that she could see, he had a grim set to his jaw, and he was jogging doggedly along after her. She ignored him and kept moving.
There was a water fountain up ahead and to the right. She slowed to a walk and paused to get a long drink. Finished at last, she returned to the path glancing at her watch, and began to jog again. Her tail followed.
After another ten minutes, she slowed to a walk, giving herself time to get her breath for the next long run. It was time to head for her next goal -- the department store two blocks from the city library. By the time she got there, she figured she would have covered a good five miles, allowing for the stops to rest and to kill time. She increased the jog to a run along the meandering paths, aiming ultimately for the western side of Centennial Park, where it bordered on the business district. Metropolis City Library was located there, and it was her ultimate destination.
She was breathing hard now, and drops of sweat ran down her face as she pounded along. Her tail had fallen back a little, she noted once, when the path nearly doubled back on itself. At last she was approaching the edge of the park that bordered on the street that was her goal. She slowed as she reached the sidewalk once more and set a steady pace toward Broadhurst's.
The store was just opening its doors as she arrived. She slowed to a walk and strolled through the entrance, smiling at the woman who had just unlocked the doors. Speedy was half a block behind, and she needed to be out of sight before he arrived. She moved at a brisk pace toward the escalator that led to the second floor where the women's clothing was located.
Once there, she made her selections quickly, glancing over her shoulder frequently to see if Speedy had arrived yet.
However, the clerk was handing her the sales slip and the large plastic bag that held her purchases before Speedy arrived at the top of the escalator. Lois thanked the woman cheerfully, and glanced at her watch. Time to head for the library. She breezed past Speedy without a glance and stepped onto the down escalator. She could have sworn she heard the man growl faintly as he followed.
There he was. He came up the steps of the library and peered through the doors. Lois kept her face turned away, apparently focusing on the romance novel in her hand, but she could see his image reflected in the shiny metal side of a book cart parked nearby with a load of returned books waiting to be checked in.
Apparently satisfied that she was safely corralled for the time being, he turned and walked deliberately to one of the stone benches near the front of the building and took a seat. He was probably glad to get some rest, Lois surmised, and he must think that all he had to do was to watch the entrance to see her when she left.
Fortunately, he apparently didn't know that Lois had used this dodge some years ago. There was a little-known exit from the rear of the library, a locked door through which she could exit in a pinch.
Once she was certain that Lex's man was settled in one spot, Lois strolled back into the main body of the library. There was a room off to one side with a sofa and two overstuffed chairs as well as a table with four straight-backed wooden chairs surrounding it. There was no one here yet, and Lois made quick work of changing into the outfit that she had purchased at Broadhurst's -- a much less noticeable ensemble consisting of a pair of ordinary jeans, a tan, long-sleeved shirt, and black tennis shoes. She fastened her hair back with a hair tie, slipped on a pair of sunglasses and regarded herself in the glass of a decorative mirror that adorned the wall. Not bad. She sure didn't look like the woman who had come in here ten minutes ago.
Now for the next part. She removed the watch that was almost certainly a tracking device and dropped it behind the cushions of the sofa, then rolled up the jogging suit and stuffed it into the bag that had held her purchases. Wadding it up, she tucked it under her arm and, crossing her fingers for luck, Lois exited into the main body of the library again and made her way to the rear of the building.
Technically, she wasn't supposed to be in this part of the building, but such facts had never bothered her before, and a short time later she exited from the door that had been her goal. Hopefully, Lex's man wouldn't feel it necessary to check on her for a while. In any event, to cover her tracks, she intended to tell Lex, when she got back to the penthouse, that during her jog this morning she had noticed a pony-tailed man following her, and after the event at the Halloween ball, had been concerned enough that she had taken measures to escape him. Lex might not know whether to believe the story, but he would have to accept it, at least on the surface.
In any case, this little subterfuge was absolutely necessary because she needed help and she needed it badly. She couldn't let this Lex hurt Clark, no matter which world he came from, and Clark could pass along her warning to Superman. And equally important, she needed some kind of help to try to figure out how this had happened to her and how she could get home. That last might not be possible, but Lois Lane didn't give up without a fight. She had a hunch that the bearded man that she had seen twice now -- once at the party and once at the park -- might be involved in the mess, but she had nothing solid to base the feeling on. Still, she would keep an eye out for him.
She had thought this out carefully. Making a phone call from the penthouse was asking for someone to listen in on her, and trying to make one while out jogging was going to be reported. The only way for her to be able to do so unobserved was to shake the man assigned to follow her, which she was pretty sure she had done.
There was a restaurant a short distance away, where she was sure to find a phone. A few minutes later, she entered Diego's Family Restaurant and a few seconds after that was dialing a cell phone number. She waited while the phone rang, crossing her fingers that the Mortie Engelman of this world had the same cell phone number as the Mortie of her world, and that he hadn't changed it since the destruction of the Daily Planet. A lot of this was depending on luck, of course, but with only a tiny amount of that luck, this Mortie, like his counterpart, was a decent guy, who had decided that alcoholism was more trouble than it was worth...
"Engelman," a familiar voice said.
She gave a faint gasp of relief. "Mortie, it's Lois Lane -- Lois Luthor. I'm in trouble."
"Lois?" The surprise in Mortie's voice was quickly submerged by concern. "Are you all right?"
"For the moment, I am. I've found out some things that I need to tell Clark. Can you get a message to him for me?"
"Sure," Mortie said. "He's out of the office at the moment, but he should be back soon. What's wrong?"
"I might not have a lot of time. My minder thinks I'm in the library right now. I want you to tell him this word for word."
"Yes," Lois said. "Tell Clark that everything he said to me about Lex was right. And tell him to warn Superman that Lex is about to try what he tried on my wedding day, again. To both Clark and Superman. Got it?"
"Got it," Mortie said.
"I have to go," Lois said. "I'll try to call back when I can." She hung up.
A few moments later, she breathed a long sigh of relief. There he was, sitting on the bench within sight of the library entrance, looking bored. Lois took a breath, and then a second one, and striving for a casual pace, hurried up the steps of the building and pushed through the wide, glass doors. Speedy didn't even turn his head.
The restroom was empty, she discovered a few moments later, and she made quick work of changing back into the green jogging suit. She was almost ready to leave when she remembered the watch. If it was where she had left it, she should probably retrieve it.
An older man, who was sitting with his back to the sofa, now occupied the reading room. On the table before him, several thick books were stacked, and his nose was buried in another one. Lois caught sight of one of the titles as she crossed to the sofa and found herself wondering how anyone could find that many books about collecting stamps.
But, with an opponent like Lex, covering all her bases seemed to be a good idea. If anything, in her world he had been shown to be a dangerous and extremely clever man. If he had his people check on her whereabouts, after her trip to the library -- and he very well might -- she wanted her story to hold up.
"Excuse me," she said politely. "I'm sorry to disturb you, but I seem to have lost my watch. Have you seen a gold watch in here, anywhere?"
The man looked up. "I'm afraid not," he said.
"I was sitting on the sofa," Lois continued. "It was Black Hills gold, and --"
"I haven't seen it," he said, a little more sharply. "Why don't you check under the cushions? If the band broke, it might have slipped between them."
"Thank you," Lois said. Well, he wasn't very nice, but he was bound to remember her now, if any of Lex's people came around to check on her story. She crossed to the sofa and began to search between the cushions. After a moment, the watch came to light, exactly where she had left it. "Oh, here it is! Thank heavens!"
The reader didn't look up. Satisfied that she had made her point, Lois slipped the watch into a pocket of the green jogging suit and left the room.
"Where to?" the driver asked.
"Lex Tower," she said, and leaned back in the seat, breathing a sigh of relief as the taxi sped away. In her lap, she balanced three books, two of them torrid romances and one a spine-chilling suspense novel, all designed to reinforce the impression of her trip to the library in the minds of the servants and, of course, Lex. Lois Luthor might now be the wife of the world's second-richest man, but she doubted that she would give up her independence that easily. Lex might scorn a visit to the public library, but she would continue to use it.
The cab rolled through the streets of Metropolis, and Lois glanced at the retrieved watch, noting that it was twenty minutes to eleven. A lot had happened since she had left the penthouse, and it seemed as if a good deal more time had passed than actually had. She glanced at the books again, noting the picture on the front cover of the one on top. It showed a storm-tossed night sky, a full moon half-covered with clouds, a graveyard with some of the headstones fallen in the grass, and, of course, the heroine crouching behind one while a shadowy figure, gripping a knife, loomed in the background. It was just the sort of melodramatic nonsense that she had read in her late teens. The Lois Luthor who was Lex's real wife had probably read them, too.
Again, the question of the real Lois Luthor's whereabouts crossed her mind. She suspected strongly that her counterpart's disappearance had not been accidental -- that the other her had vanished deliberately. She had gone to the Halloween ball dressed in such a way as to blend with many others in similar outfits, and thereby make it easier for her to escape her tail. She wouldn't have done so unless she had known exactly where she was going, Lois thought -- at least, she wouldn't, and she believed that Lois Luthor would also have planned ahead. She must have left behind every means by which Lex could have tracked her, which meant that she probably had discovered the surveillance net with which she had been surrounded.
In her place, Lois wouldn't have gone to Clark or anyone else with whom she had any connection, because Lex would be looking for her as soon as he realized that she had deliberately vanished. She probably wouldn't have run, either, unless there was an urgent reason to do so. She would have stayed and investigated -- which meant that Lois Luthor might very well have the evidence that she needed to bring Lex down. She would certainly be hiding now, wondering why Lex wasn't searching for her. She couldn't know, of course, that another Lois had taken her place.
Which, again, brought to mind the question of how she had gotten here. Was there any chance that she could get back where she belonged? It might be, she thought, that if she went to Clark, if he was even still speaking to her, that he and Superman could help her. A lot of this situation was going to have to be played by ear, she knew. She hadn't seen any sign of the bearded man since yesterday, so maybe his involvement was a false lead.
The cab pulled up in front of Lex Tower and the driver turned in the seat. His face was vaguely familiar, and Lois blinked at him in confusion for several seconds.
"That'll be twenty-three ninety-five," the man said. Lois turned away from him and fished briefly in her bra for the roll of twenties that she had stuffed there, and after an instant withdrew two of them. She turned back to hand him the bills.
"Keep the change," she said.
"Thanks, ma'am," the man said, accepting the bills. Lois was aware that the taxi remained at the curb for several minutes as she made her way through the main doors of the building. Once inside, she turned in time to see the vehicle pull away. Where had she seen that driver before? Could he have been a cab driver in her own Metropolis, who had driven her somewhere, at some time? She didn't think so.
And then it hit her. The face was more familiar than that. It had been the bearded man, only this time he was without his beard. This was the second time that she had seen him here -- and with that realization, her first encounter with him was suddenly clear in her mind.
It had been at the Metro Halloween Ball. He had been the man with the sword who had spoken to her for a few minutes not long after she had first arrived. That was where she had seen him before, and now he had turned up driving a cab and minus the beard. This was definitely more than a coincidence. She was going to watch for him more closely from now on, she thought. He could very well be the reason she was here, and if he was, he might be her only way to get home.
When Lois stepped off the elevator in the penthouse, Mrs. Cox was just passing by and gave her a disapproving look. "You're back late, Mrs. Luthor. L...Mr. Luthor was concerned. And you know; it's not necessary to take a taxi. One of the chauffeurs is always available for your convenience."
Lois glanced at her with one eyebrow up. "How did you know I took a cab?" she inquired sweetly. "And whether I use one of our cars or a taxi is no business of the hired help."
Mrs. Cox's mouth fell open, and Lois walked away without a backward glance.
Once out of sight of Lex's personal assistant -- more personal than she had realized in her own world, she reflected cynically -- she stepped into the room that had been intended to be her office in her world.
The up-to-date computer was almost certainly monitored, she thought, which made it unsuitable for any research that she might want to do concerning Lois Luthor's current whereabouts, but maybe, if she used it to throw Lex completely off the scent, it could be useful in another way. She set her books down on a corner of the wide desk and took a seat before the device.
It was too bad, she was thinking a moment later, as the computer ran through its start sequence, that she didn't have Jimmy's skill with a computer. Where was Jimmy in this world, she wondered, not to mention Jack. As irritating as the teenager had been, the knowledge that Lex had intended to have him killed had been one more point of horror in the huge campaign of fraud, deceit and violence that Lex had waged. Had Lex killed him here, or had he managed to escape as he had in her world? Had Lex left Jimmy and Perry alone? He still intended to remove Clark and Superman, as she had learned last night, so how many of her other friends had he also targeted for death? What had Lois Luthor discovered that had caused her to run?
"Hello, darling," Lex's voice said. "I understand you and Mrs. Cox had a small contretemps a few minutes ago."
Lois had heard the door open, so his voice hadn't come as a surprise. She swiveled the chair around to face her "husband." "Mrs. Cox has no business prying into what I do or don't do, Lex. And if I choose to take a taxi instead of one of our cars, she has no right to question me. I won't put up with it."
Lex's face relaxed into an indulgent smile. "She was only concerned for your welfare, Lois."
"Uh huh. Well, I grew up a long time ago, and I don't need Mrs. Cox to nursemaid me," she said firmly. "I'd appreciate it if you'd tell her to butt out of my business."
Lex chuckled. "You've always had a streak of independence that I suspect Mrs. Cox doesn't understand, my dear. If it will make you happy, I'll tell her not to offer you help unless you ask for it. Will that do?"
Lois made herself smile. "That will do very well," she said. "Thank you."
"I came by actually in order to have a chance to see you before I leave for Zurich this afternoon," he said. "I probably won't be back until after midnight our time."
"Business?" Lois asked.
"I'm afraid so," Lex said. "I'll be leaving in a few minutes."
"Oh, dear," Lois said. "I probably shouldn't have stayed at the library for so long, but I didn't realize..."
"No, you should do exactly as you choose," Lex said with a smile. "I thought that this Sunday we should go to the ballet. Will that suit you, or would you prefer something else?"
"That would be perfect," Lois said, smiling brightly at him. "I'll be looking forward to it. You know how I always enjoy the ballet with you."
He leaned down to kiss her on the lips, and she forced herself to respond appropriately. "Then until tomorrow, my dear."
"Goodbye, darling," she said. "I'll miss you."
But a few moments later, she had turned back to her computer and pulled up a list of stories that she had researched before the destruction of the Planet. Judging by everything she had seen, Lois Luthor's mind worked like hers, so maybe she could use that similarity to figure out where the other Lois might have gone. Her counterpart's stories were very similar to the ones she recalled working on and she ran down the list quickly, careful not to open any of the files. One of them caught her eye, and a light bulb seemed to flash in her brain. Quickly she finished scanning down the list, closed it and opened another folder. She scanned several more folders and closed them, well aware that someone would probably be checking over her computer activity later. Finally, in the fourth folder, she opened a file as divorced in subject matter as she could think of from the one that had given her that sudden flash of insight. The story about Preston Carpenter certainly had nothing to do with the research about the Hobbs Women's Shelter and hopefully would throw Lex's hounds off the scent, especially since she had never actually written the story in question.
After a time, she closed the article and switched to a folder where she -- or her counterpart -- had archived information about the current stories being run by LNN. Some of them were similar to the ones presently being followed in her own Metropolis, but there were differences as well. With her knowledge of Lex's influence on the news reported by his network, she could see where he had subtly altered the kind of reporting done by LNN in the same way that he had done to the Daily Planet in her own reality. Looking at it now, she found it amazing that she hadn't noticed it back during the whole wedding fiasco. Talk about having been willfully blind. Lex was like a spider, spinning his web everywhere to enhance his own power and hide his nature from those around him. Only he hadn't fooled Clark, and with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, she wasn't going to be fooled by this Lex, either, this time.
And Lois Luthor might also have caught on, if a little late, just as she probably would have, eventually. Whether that would have been in time to save Clark and Superman was an open question, but she thankfully hadn't had to face that possibility. Maybe she could help Lois Luthor head it off, too.
She had researched the subject three years ago, but then decided against writing the story after speaking to a young mother who pleaded with her not to bring the place to the attention of Metropolis's residents. The woman's husband had made threats against her life and the lives of their two children if she dared to leave him. She had left anyway, because staying would have been as much a danger to all three as fleeing. The man was subsequently arrested when he held the woman's mother hostage in order to force her return, but Lois had decided to kill the story anyway, at least for the present.
But Lois Luthor would have had to go somewhere. If Lex were to search for her, one of the first places he would be bound to try would be Clark and his family, as she had thought before, followed by Lois's other friends. Lois Luthor would know that, and very probably wouldn't go to any of them -- but she might take refuge in the obscure women's shelter, at least in the beginning. Until she could contact someone that she trusted. She had to have acquired some kind of evidence, Lois thought. In her place, once she realized that Lex was a criminal of staggering proportions, Lois would have stayed, no matter what the danger, until she had the proof she needed. She had to think that her counterpart would do the same.
But what kind of evidence would it be?
Something pretty damning, she thought. Nothing of a minor nature would be sufficient to bring down Lex Luthor. Half the judges and a good percentage of the Metropolitan cops were on his payroll, as she had found out after her disastrous wedding.
The computer chimed musically, informing her that she had an incoming email, and after an instant of hesitation, she opened it.
She wasn't sure what she had expected, but this wasn't it.
"Hi, Lois, (the email said)
"Enjoying yourself? This is what you missed the first time around, courtesy of your do-gooder friend. Don't worry, though, because now you can catch it on the replay! g
This is so much better than television. No mistakes allowed, or it's curtains for you and your muscular pal -- and no commercial breaks, either.
Irony: I love it!
A Secret Admirer"
She had to admit that he'd stuck her in a bad spot, but that didn't mean she couldn't get out of it. She had been in some pretty bad spots before and had somehow always managed.
For an instant she thought wistfully that if she would just wake up and find out that this mess had all been a bad dream it would sure be a lot easier, but wishes were fruitless things in the face of reality. She wasn't going to solve the problem by wishing; that was for sure. Somehow she had to get hold of Clark, or Superman, without Lex -- or her Secret Admirer -- finding out about it, and get some help.
At least, with Lex headed for Zurich, she wouldn't have to come up with any excuses tonight. She glanced at her watch. It was already past two. Well, there was no law that Mrs. Luthor couldn't drop by LNN's offices at two in the afternoon and look around, was there? She would only be doing what Lois Luthor probably did as often as she felt like it. Figuratively, she shook her head. The job she supposedly had was about as useless as it was possible for her to imagine.
In her own world, Lex had intended to undermine her independence in order to bring her that much more under his control. He had already been well on the way to his goal when, at the altar, she had suddenly and clearly realized that she couldn't marry him because she didn't love him, and because she would lose her best friend in the process. Evidently, Lois Luthor hadn't quite had the nerve to back out. But she knew the kind of man Clark was. If she went to him and asked for his help he would help her, even if it took him a while to get past his anger. Clark was completely incapable of refusing help to someone who really needed it. If he was the same man in this world as he was in her own, he would help. But it was getting to him that was going to be the real trick.
Well, if Mortie had passed along her warning, maybe Clark would realize that she had at last seen the light. But would he believe her wild story? Considering that she hardly believed it herself, how could she expect him to? The only way to prove it was going to be if she could find Lois Luthor and show him.
Lois continued on to her office. The guy was probably new, but his reaction had been interesting. She could guess what the staff thought of Lois Luthor: the boss's wife, who, under the orders of her husband, was to be humored and treated as if she were respected, but her job didn't really matter. She had started to feel that way back when she first worked for LNN. They might change their minds later, if Lois Luthor managed to bring Lex down, but that was certainly what they believed now.
Figuratively, she shrugged. She was simply here to convince those whose job it was to keep track of her that she suspected nothing and was going about her normal routine. She opened the door of her office, glancing at -- what was her name? -- Sonja Meehan, that was it. Her so-called executive assistant. Sonja was a minor player, if she remembered correctly. That information had come to her attention almost by accident during the weeks following the fall of the House of Luthor. Lois had been following the myriad ongoing investigations of LexCorps and the separation of its parts into individual companies. LNN was strong enough to stand on its own, and Lois had learned somewhere that Sonja had acquired her job of executive assistant as a sort of payoff from Lex; a pat on the head from the great man after he tired of her as a mistress. Sonja had possessed more common sense than most of Lex's women. She'd accepted the inevitable and asked sweetly for a position in his company where she could continue to serve him. What was it with women and Lex, Lois wondered abstractedly. He used them, discarded them and treated them like dirt and they groveled at his feet and declared undying love. Hopefully, he would expect her to follow the pattern as well, until it was too late.
"Sorry to leave you in the lurch yesterday," she told Sonja. "I don't know if Lex told you I was mugged at the Halloween ball and had to take a little while off to recover." She watched Sonja's eyebrows rise at the matter-of-fact recital. "I'd like to see a summary of the stories you're airing on the evening news."
"Certainly, Mrs. Luthor." Sonja smiled in the usual smarmy way that Lois had come to know in the short time she'd worked for LNN. "It's really too late to change any of them, though. Are you sure you want to bother?"
She fixed the woman with her most intimidating stare. "That would be immediately, Sonja. It's my responsibility if a story is inaccurate or opens us up to a lawsuit. I want to check the content before it airs."
Sonja's eyes widened slightly and after a second she dropped her gaze to the desk in front of her. "I'll see to it immediately."
"Good. I'll be in my office." Lois closed the door and leaned back against it, listening.
After a moment she heard Sonja's voice. "That bitch! She really thinks she's in charge around here!"
"What happened?" a second voice, this one male, asked.
"Mrs. Luthor wants to see the stuff we're airing tonight! She comes around here when she feels like it, tosses orders around and pretends like she's working! Lex said we have to follow her orders to keep her happy, but I wish she'd just fall down a manhole or something!"
"My, my," the second voice said, "we wouldn't be jealous now, would we?"
There was an indistinct mumble from Sonja. Then: "You don't have to put up with her!"
"Nope, but if you don't hurry and get the stuff, I'm betting the boss'll be on your case when he finds out. You know what he told you last time."
"Yeah, yeah." Sonja sounded thoroughly sullen. "Don't upset her. If she runs crying to him again, he'll be annoyed. I don't give a fig if she's upset."
"No, but you won't like it a bit if he is." There was a distinct laugh in the male voice. "Face it, baby, you're old news. Just do what he told you and you'll stay out of trouble."
Another mumble from Sonja. Lois pulled her ear away from the door and went to her desk. Lex wouldn't be a bit happy if he knew she'd heard Sonja's little dialogue with the other employee. Of course, Sonja probably wasn't aware of Lois Luthor's tendency to snoop, either. It could have been something as simple as that last exchange that had finally clued her in that something wasn't right. As a matter of fact, this might be just what she needed...
Some ten minutes later there was a knock on the door and Sonja entered with several folders in her hands. "Here's the information you asked for, Mrs. Luthor."
"Thank you," Lois said coolly. She said nothing as the woman laid the items on her desk. Sonja turned and started to leave, but Lois spoke up. "Ms. Meehan."
The woman turned.
"I may be only the boss's wife, but I'm still your superior. If I were to tell him about that last conversation, I'm sure he'd be very unhappy with you."
She watched as the color drained from Sonja's face. "Conversation?"
"Yes, the one you had after I closed the door." Lois watched the other woman's expression change to one of complete dismay. "Is there any reason I shouldn't report it to him?"
Sonja opened her mouth but no sound came out. Lois didn't smile. Finally the woman gave a little gasp. "Mrs. Luthor, I'm sorry! Don't tell L -- Mr. Luthor! I need this job!"
"Really?" Lois raised a supercilious eyebrow. "Explain to me why I should care?"
Sonja's expression collapsed and she began to cry. "I'll be fired!"
"Yes?" Lois said. "And?"
"Please, Mrs. Luthor --"
Lois got to her feet and rather deliberately crossed the room to push the door shut.
"You and I need to talk, Ms. Meehan."
Sonja gulped. Lois eyed her thoughtfully. "I might be persuaded to let this slide. Assuming you cooperate." She thrust a box of tissues into her assistant's hands.
Sonja's eyes widened and she looked faintly hopeful. "What do you want me to do? I can't do anything against the rules."
"I'm not asking you to do anything against the rules," Lois said. "You might recall that before I married, I was an investigative reporter for the Daily Planet. I've had some suspicion for a while that someone in my husband's employ may be spying for a rival company. That may have been the reason I was assaulted night before last. I don't want to falsely accuse anyone; you know that my husband can be a very tough businessman, so I don't want to say anything until I'm sure. It wouldn't be fair for someone to lose his job over a simple suspicion, but Lex is my husband, and I want to support him as much as I can. I want you to help me do that."
Sonja wiped her eyes and nose. "How can I help?"
"I want a LexCorp employee badge. I need to be able to move around in the building without everyone instantly knowing that I'm the boss's wife. If I ask for one, people will want to know why and I won't be able to find out what I need to know. Can you get me one?"
Sonja hesitated. "I guess so. But if I do --"
"If you do, I won't say anything about what I overheard. If you don't, you'll be job-hunting by tomorrow morning. Do you understand?"
Sonja nodded vigorously.
"And if you tell Lex before I'm ready to let him know what I've found, I guarantee you'll be out of a job just as fast. Is that clear?"
"Yes," Sonja said. "I'm very sorry, ma'am."
"That's irrelevant. Help me to help my husband and we'll say no more about it."
The employee badge looked like all the others, Lois thought, examining it carefully some time later. There was the employee's name, the date of employment, a serial number and a bar code. The only thing that didn't match was the picture of the blond female.
Back in the suite that Lois Luthor shared with her husband, Lois carefully slit the plastic covering in the back where it didn't show and removed the photograph. A picture from the wedding scrapbook, taken after the other Lois had apparently changed out of her wedding gown, supplied the replacement photo. Lois removed it, rearranged the pictures to cover the empty spot and replaced the album neatly on the shelf. After a short hunt, she located a pair of nail scissors and carefully trimmed the photo of Lois Luthor to fit the badge. Disposing of the mutilated photo and the one of the blond woman was a matter of snipping them both to shreds and flushing them down the toilet. Lois slipped the photo of her counterpart into the little plastic envelope and closed the slit in the back with a drop of clear nail polish. There. She had a badge: her ticket to freedom.
A glance at her watch told her that it was nearly six. Time to get moving. She picked up the in-house phone and called the kitchen.
After a moment, someone answered and Lois ordered dinner in her room, and then waited an endless time for the dinner to arrive. When it did so, she took the tray from Annette. "I'll leave the tray in the hall when I've finished," she said. "I don't wish to be disturbed tonight. I'm going to bed early."
"Yes, madam," the maid said.
Satisfied, Lois closed the door and locked it.
Quickly, she gulped down the dinner and utilized the rest of the time that she might be expected to take eating her meal by removing all pieces of jewelry that might possibly contain a homing device. She dressed simply in a business suit and a light jacket against the chill of the November night and tucked the badge into its pocket. She tucked the roll of bills into the other pocket and put a handful of small change in with the badge. The outfit that she had bought that morning at Broadhurst's was still folded up neatly in the bag, which she rolled up and stuffed under her coat. Ready, she surveyed herself critically in the mirror.
Her hairstyle was a giveaway. Quickly, she found a couple of hair clips and an elastic band and shoved them in a pocket. Once away from the penthouse, she would find a place to change her hairstyle.
Carefully, she listened. There was no sound beyond the door. Hastily, she shoved the tray out, stepped over it and, closing the door behind her, hurried to the stairwell a short distance down the hall from Lex's private elevator. Once safely inside, she removed the stylish heels and nearly ran down the steps in her bare feet, careful not to make any sounds that might alert the staff that someone was in the stairwell.
The Luthor residence had two floors, and the steps ended at the first floor of the penthouse. To get to the business offices on the floors below them, it was necessary to leave the stairwell and take one of three choices down at least one floor: the fire escape, which sounded an alarm when any access door below the penthouse was opened, the Luthors' private elevator, or the servants' elevator. She would have taken the private elevator directly, but she didn't wish a passing servant to notice that the elevator was occupied and in use, because, besides Nigel St. John, the only person that would be using it tonight would be Mrs. Luthor. Taking the stairs to the bottom floor and then using the private elevator, although more indirect, cut that risk somewhat. Now the trick was to get into it. Lois opened the door to the stairs a tiny crack and peeked out, straining her ears to hear.
A murmur sounded from the direction of the servants' wing, but she could hear no one closer. Deciding that boldness was probably the best course, Lois slipped her shoes on, opened the door and stepped into the hall.
No one was visible. In a few strides, she was at the elevator and pressing the call button. The doors opened almost instantly with a muted chime that made her hair stand on end. Lois stepped within and pressed the button for the next floor down and then held her breath as the doors closed and the car went into motion.
In seconds, the elevator slid to a halt and the doors opened. She had chosen this hour because a large number of employees had left, but enough remained not to make her departure at all unusual.
Crossing her fingers that no one on the floor above had noticed anything, Lois stepped out into an empty hallway. With a glance around, she reached back inside and pushed the button for the top floor of the penthouse. That would at least help confuse things a bit. Quickly, she slipped a hand into her pocket, bringing out the forged badge, pinned it to her lapel and strode hurriedly down the hallway toward the main elevators.
The sun had long since set, but the streets were well lit in this section of town. Lois walked briskly away from the Tower. When Lex's people discovered that she was gone -- and that might not be until morning -- she didn't want them to be able to discover which taxi she had taken, where she had gone, or when.
The buses were still running. Ahead of her, a bus drew up at a corner bus stop and for a moment she considered the wisdom of boarding it but ultimately decided against it. She looked too much like Lois Luthor right now. She needed a place to change her clothing and hairstyle before she risked walking into a closed environment such as a bus.
There was a gas station four blocks away, at the edge of the business district. She started determinedly toward it.
Walking four blocks in heels wasn't comfortable, but she was pretty much inured to it. She was limping slightly by the time she got there, but once at her destination, headed directly for the ladies' room.
The door was locked. Well, that had never stopped her before, and the same objection to getting on a bus applied to talking to the station attendant. She removed the hair clips from the pocket of her jacket and proceeded to pick the lock. Fortunately, the restrooms were on one side of the building in a darkened area, so no one was likely to notice her presence.
And they didn't. Lois slipped inside. Ten minutes later, an entirely different woman emerged from the restroom. This one was dressed in jeans, black tennis shoes and a tan, long-sleeved shirt with the light jacket, worn open, over it. Her dark hair was done up in a swinging ponytail with the sunglasses perched on top of her head, and she wore almost no makeup. The business suit now occupied the bag. Leaving it around for Lex's people to find wasn't part of her plan.
This time when she found a bus stop, she waited, seated on the bench, until the downtown bus rumbled up to the curb, and then boarded with two other people. There were, as might be expected, no seats, so she stood, hanging onto a strap until they reached an area near a middle-class residential neighborhood. Lois left the bus and glanced around.
The neighborhood was mostly quiet except for a car with a pizza delivery sign atop its roof, advertising the Pizza Cabin, that was pulled up by the curb a short distance away, the motor still running. The delivery boy was just headed up a sidewalk toward a lighted front porch, several large, flat boxes in his hands. Lois hurried to the car, reached inside the driver's open window and unlocked the back door. An instant later, she was huddled on the floor behind the driver's seat, making herself as small as she could. Hopefully with her dark jeans, dark hair and the dark jacket, she wouldn't be noticed.
Silence. Lois stayed where she was, trying to breathe quietly.
The driver's door opened, the car lurched as the driver jumped into his seat and the door slammed. The car squealed away from the curb. Lois closed her eyes and gritted her teeth as the vehicle made a U-turn in the middle of the street, swaying wildly. The shocks must be pretty bad off, she thought, from the way the car bounded as it went over a depression in the street. She dared to reach up to grasp the safety handle and hung on.
The engine rumbled unevenly; Lois thought the muffler probably needed to be replaced. She stayed hunkered down, clenching her jaw to keep from crying out as they swung around a corner and the driver slammed on his brakes.
The door opened and the driver jumped out. Lois raised her head far enough to peek through the glass to see the man trotting up the walk toward an apartment complex, a stack of pizza boxes in his hands and a couple of bottles of soda tucked under one arm.
A pair of headlights was coming toward her, and Lois caught the glint of the streetlights off the lights, now unlit, across the roof of the car. She ducked down, hoping that the police officers in the squad car hadn't seen her.
Several minutes passed and the driver's door opened again. The delivery driver dropped into the seat and once more the door slammed. Lois held her breath as the car pulled away from the curb and rocketed forward again, the body of the vehicle swaying precariously as it rounded the corner fast enough to make the tires squeal in distress.
Twice more the car stopped and the driver repeated his routine. Then there was a long period of time with no stops, and at last the car pulled into a parking space. The engine died.
Lois didn't move, scrunched into a ball on the car floor, waiting. The door opened, the driver got out and the door slammed. Lois heard the click of a key in the lock. And then, nothing.
After counting silently to five hundred, she cautiously unfolded her body from its scrunch on the floor and peeked through the window.
The car was parked in a dimly lit lot behind a brick building. With trembling hands, she pushed up the door lock, opened the door and got out.
The smell of pizza filled the air around her. This must be the local Pizza Cabin, where the delivery driver had come from. Lois walked away from the car, keeping to the more dimly lit areas of the lot until she reached the sidewalk; then she took a deep breath, straightened up and stepped boldly out onto the walk.
A crowd of giggling teenagers was entering the glass doors on one side of the building, and above the door a lighted sign announced "Pizza Cabin." Lois made her way past them to the corner. The street sign informed her that she was at the corner of Flag and Piccolo. She felt a wave of relief. Clinton Street was only two blocks away. Without hesitation, now, she turned south and began to walk. With luck, Clark was home, and right now she would put up with any amount of anger, however misplaced, just to see his face and get some help.
The trip to Clinton Street was uneventful, but as she approached the short, narrow street where her partner -- at least in her own world -- lived, she slowed her steps, looking cautiously around. The conversation she had heard last night while she stood outside Lex's office came to mind. Lex could very well have someone watching Clark if he intended to have him killed. With a carefully unconcerned manner, she strolled down the walk in front of Clark's place, glancing around as she reached the steps that led up to his apartment.
She didn't see anyone, but the sensation that someone was watching wouldn't quite go away. An investigative reporter tended to trust her instincts, so Lois continued on past the apartment building, turned the corner and walked steadily until she had passed into the shelter of another of the old buildings that lined these streets.
Once out of the sight of anyone that might be keeping an eye on Clark's apartment, she hurried to the building and flattened herself against it. Slowly and cautiously, she peeked one eye around the corner.
A single street light illuminated the sidewalk in front of Clark's place. What she expected to see she wasn't sure, but Lois waited with the patience that she was able to employ as an investigative reporter, although it was entirely foreign to her in her personal life. If someone was watching Clark's apartment besides her, anyway, sooner or later she would spot him.
What was that across the street? The building that faced Clark's door was mostly a blank, windowless wall on this side, but there was a narrow alley that opened between that structure and a second one very close to it. The street seemed quiet. Now and then a single figure would cut down the short, narrow street that styled itself Clinton Avenue, but otherwise the area was deserted.
If she hadn't been looking, she wouldn't have caught the flare of a match in the dark alleyway. It was only visible for a second, quickly shielded by someone's hand, but for an instant she caught the glimpse of a man's face as he held the match close to light his cigarette. The match went out, but now that she was watching, she could see the faint glow from the tip of the cigarette as the man in the alley smoked it. She watched, hoping that her imagination was working overtime and that the guy was simply a passerby who had stopped to light his cigarette. Or maybe, she thought, the place was an apartment house, and the man had only stepped outside to smoke. Maybe he had a wife that wouldn't let him smoke in the house.
After a time, there was a tiny shower of sparks and the cigarette was dropped to the ground. A moment later she saw the muted flare of another match. The movement of the cigarette tip resumed.
Well, that pretty much was that. The guy was stationed across the street watching Clark's apartment. Now what was she going to do?
A familiar figure was coming down the walk. She could have recognized that tall, muscular silhouette and jaunty walk anywhere, even before the single streetlight glinted off the lenses of a pair of glasses, and then revealed the brilliant swirls of red, gold and black on what Clark Kent fancifully called a tie. Lois stifled the urge to call out a warning that would have revealed to the watcher that Lois Luthor was here to see her partner.
Two dark shapes detached themselves from the dark of the alley and darted across the street toward Clark. She almost cried out when she saw the knives in their hands, and then she was running toward her partner, unable to stop herself, as he turned to confront the two men.
The two assailants were coming at him from the right and the left, and Clark crouched, obviously ready to defend himself, but what were the odds that he could handle two armed men with his bare hands? The first man was coming at him with the knife held at waist level, slashing for Clark's midriff. Her partner dodged it in a motion so swift that Lois almost couldn't believe what she had seen. Either the Clark of this world had studied fighting techniques on his own, or Clark hadn't told her everything about himself. Then there was no more time to think as Lois catapulted past Clark, head-on into the second attacker.
At the last second the man saw her coming and tried to dodge, but it was too late. They crashed to the sidewalk and Lois hit the ground, rolled sideways and came to her feet again, all in one motion. Marginally, she was aware of Clark and the first assailant jockeying for position behind and to her left, but her attention was now on the man scrambling ungracefully to his feet.
Letting him get his bearings probably wasn't a good idea. Lois kicked him in the face, feeling the hot-ice slash of the knife against her ankle as she did so. The attacker went down again and she kicked him in the side with all her strength.
Blood spattered, and the breath went out of her opponent with a whoosh. Then, somehow, Clark was bending over the second knife-wielder and removing the weapon from his grasp. The first man was on the ground, and now Clark glanced at Lois.
"You're hurt!" he said.
"They're going to get away," Lois managed, her voice no more than a breathy whisper. The two assailants were staggering to their feet. Clark turned back to the men.
"Get out of here," he said.
He didn't have to speak twice. The two men ran.
Her ankle hurt. Only now did the fact really register, and Lois looked down to see that the knife had caught her across the side of her ankle and that the cut was bleeding freely. "Ouch," she said faintly.
Clark was hustling her up the steps of his apartment and before she realized it she was seated on his sofa, the cut ankle resting on the old leather ottoman. Clark had disappeared, but an instant later he was back, a towel in his hands. He folded it expertly and pressed it to the cut.
"Just a minute," he said. "Can you put pressure on this?"
Numbly, she nodded. He had disappeared again, she thought, and then she realized that he was pulling curtains across the window that led to the balcony.
Then he returned again and took the towel from her hands, moving it aside to examine the cut.
"Clark," she began.
He shook his head. "Lie down a minute," he said. "On your face. I'm going to get my first aid kit and take care of that. Then we can talk."
"Clark," she whispered. "Lex tried to have you killed."
"I know," he said. "Mortie gave me your message."
Her stomach was definitely feeling uneasy. She rested her forehead on her arm, aware of movement behind her. Then Clark's fingers touched her ankle. "It's kind of deep. This is going to sting a little."
"It's not that mixture you used on Lex that night at the Planet, is it?"
"No." She was almost certain that she could hear a smile in his voice. "I'm afraid I made that sting a little more than necessary. Hold still, now."
If Lex's wound had stung more than necessary, then Clark had been more vindictive that she'd thought he was capable of being, she was thinking a minute later. Then suddenly a sensation of cold enveloped the wound and the pain abated. She tried to twist around to see what he was doing.
"No, hold still. I'm bandaging it up," Clark's voice said. She was aware of his fingers touching her ankle very gently. "Almost done. There." Clark laid her ankle down on the couch. "You can sit up now."
She rolled carefully over and pushed herself into a sitting position. Clark was putting a roll of gauze and another of adhesive tape back into a small, canvas case.
"Where did you get that?" Lois asked.
"This?" Clark snapped the case closed. "I bought it from some Boy Scouts a few months ago." He laid the little case aside. "When Mortie told me you'd called this afternoon, I could hardly believe it. I haven't seen you since the day of your wedding."
"I can't stay," she said. "Not here, anyway. As soon as they realize I've left the penthouse, they're going to be looking for me and the first place they'll look is here. Clark, everything you said about Lex was true, and I'm so sorry I didn't listen."
"How did you find out?"
Lois shrugged. "That's another story -- a pretty unbelievable one. Something crazy has happened, and I need help."
"What kind of help?"
"I need to find someone. There's a good chance she has the evidence that will incriminate Lex. If not, I can at least tell you where to look for evidence."
"Who is she?" Clark asked.
Lois found that she was clasping her hands tightly in her lap. "You'll never believe me. I almost don't believe it myself. Can you trust me enough not to ask -- and if I find her, I can tell you the whole story, and have the evidence to prove it. And then I'll need more help."
"If you betray Luthor, he'll be after you," Clark said. "You'll be a target."
"I know," Lois said quietly. "On the other hand, if I don't, he'll have destroyed everything I cared about, without having to pay a nickel." She hesitated. "What happened to Jimmy, Clark? Is he still alive?"
Clark hesitated. "Yes," he said finally. "There was an attempt on his life a few weeks ago and Superman helped him leave the country. To relocate without leaving any tracks."
"How about Perry?"
"As far as I know, he's living retired in Florida. I think he's safe enough as long as he doesn't try to contact you."
"He escaped from the juvenile facility when --"
"When he found out someone had been sent there to kill him," Lois said. "Thank god. I was afraid that this time Lex might have succeeded."
"This time?" Clark asked.
"I'll explain later. Have you warned Superman? Lex was talking to that assistant of his last night -- Mrs. Cox. He still has the Kryptonite cage and he plans to use me to lure Superman in. He intends to chain him in the cage so he can't get away this time. He has to stay away from Lex, no matter what kind of excuse Lex uses to get him to --"
"Lois," Clark said slowly. "How did you know about the Kryptonite cage? Superman never told anyone about it."
Lois closed her lips tightly together. "I can't tell you," she said. "You wouldn't believe me, and you'd think I'm crazy. The only way I can prove to you that my story is true is if I can find this...person."
"Why can't you tell me?" he asked. "We used to trust each other."
She bit her lip, feeling the tears that she had refused to shed up until now begin to leak from her eyes. "It's not a matter of trust, Clark. If there's anybody I trust in the whole world, it's you -- you and Superman. He was so completely right that night -- the night I asked you to get in touch with him for me. I know why he was angry with me, now. He knew what Lex was, just like you did. If only I'd believed you --" She clenched her hands together tightly. "If I'd listened to you, none of this would have happened. I was so scared when I found out, last night, what he planned. He has people watching me every minute when I leave the penthouse. My jewelry is bugged, he monitors my computer -- I was so afraid he'd manage to kill you before I could warn you about it."
"But you managed."
"Yes, but you should have seen what I had to do to get away! I got away tonight, too -- but now I can't go back. I have to find her. It's the only chance I have."
"Who do you have to find?" he asked. "I'll help you if I can; I promise. I can probably get Superman to help you, too, if you'll just tell me who we're looking for." He reached out and cautiously took her hands. "Remember what I told you after Dr. Baines held us hostage in that warehouse? You can trust me."
"Oh, I know," Lois said. "It's not a question of trust. If you think I'm insane, it doesn't matter if I trust you."
"Why don't you tell me anyhow? Then we'll know. Who are you looking for?"
Lois closed her eyes. She was so very tired of trying to handle this mess all by herself. "All right, but I want you to swear that even if you think I'm completely insane, you'll go along anyhow, at least until I've had a chance to prove that what I'm saying is true."
"That's asking a lot," Clark said.
"If you don't promise, I can't tell you," she said. "Those are the terms."
"All right then, I promise."
"Cross your heart and hope to die?"
"Cross my heart."
"Scout's honor," Clark said. "Come on, Lois; it can't be that bad."
"Yes, it can."
"So, who are we looking for?"
Lois took a deep breath. "Me."
Clark stared at her. "What do you mean, 'you'?"
"That's why I said you'd think I was crazy," Lois said, miserably. "No one is going to believe this story."
"I'm not saying that," Clark said, frowning. "I just want to know what you mean." He studied her thoughtfully. "Lois, I know this seems irrelevant, but does your knowing about the Kryptonite cage have anything to do with this?"
She nodded. "Yes, it does. Everything does."
"Why don't you explain a little more?"
"I'll try," Lois said. "I'm not completely sure I understand what happened, myself. All I've got are some guesses -- and one email."
"Just start at the beginning," Clark said. "I'll just listen, okay?"
Lois drew a deep, nervous breath. "Okay. It all started on Halloween..." She began to talk, and Clark listened, obviously taking in every word. Several times he frowned, as if he was trying to understand her reasoning, but oddly enough, he didn't seem disbelieving. "So I -- your Clark, I mean -- told you about the cage?"
Lois nodded. "He said Superman told him, and he told me about it."
"How did he say Superman got away?" Clark asked, watching her closely.
"He said Superman used his super-breath on Lex's cummerbund to move the key closer to him. Then he rammed himself against the bars of the cage to bump it toward the key until he could reach it."
"That's exactly how he got away," Clark said. "And I know there's no ordinary way you could know that. No one knew, except Superman -- and me. What happened after that?"
"Well, Clark said Lex came down before Superman got out of the basement, and he hid among the wine barrels until Lex ran out."
"That's where the story changes," Clark said. "Luthor didn't come down into the wine cellar while Superman was there. What -- what happened to Luthor -- in your world?"
"You, Perry, Jimmy and Jack worked together to gather evidence on Lex -- how he'd engineered the Daily Planet's downfall, and how he'd bombed it and blamed Jack for it," Lois said. "They took the information to Henderson, and Henderson and his men showed up at the wedding to arrest Lex. To escape being arrested, he jumped from the balcony of his office. Superman couldn't save him because the Kryptonite cage had temporarily suppressed his powers."
"So, in your...timeline," Clark said carefully, "they showed up in time to stop the wedding."
Lois shook her head. "No. When it came right down to it, I couldn't say 'I do'. I realized that I didn't love Lex, and that I --" She paused, reluctant to tell him what had been going through her head at the time, but this wasn't her Clark. She had nothing to lose. "That I might love Clark. That I'd certainly lose him as my best friend if I married Lex. So I said 'I can't' instead of 'I do'."
"I guess my Lois didn't say it, though," Clark said. He appeared to be looking at a spot on the rug, but his hand, where it lay on his knee, had clenched into a fist.
"I think that maybe she didn't quite have the nerve," Lois said softly. "I almost didn't. But --" She stopped. "You believe me?" she whispered.
"I don't see how I can't," he said, somewhat obscurely. "You know things that no one but Superman or I could have told you -- and we didn't," he added. He was looking at her oddly. "You think she -- my Lois -- might have wanted to refuse?"
"Probably," Lois said. "If she's anything like me, and I think she must be. It must be one of the little differences between your timeline and mine. But afterwards, you -- my Clark -- told me the truth: that he'd just been trying to save me from Lex; that he didn't love me."
"Don't be too sure of that," Clark said. "I'm not the Clark of your world, but I didn't lie to Lois about that."
"You didn't? What did you tell her?"
He hesitated. "I told her...that I'd been in love with her for a long time," he said in a low voice. "She told me she didn't feel like that about me."
"That's what I told my Clark," Lois said. "It was only at the wedding that I realized that maybe I cared more about him than I knew."
"I don't know. I know he's my best friend, and that I don't want to be without him. We never had the chance to find out the rest. After the Daily Planet was re-built, we went back to the way we were. And now --" She dashed away an errant teardrop that was trying to make its way down her cheek. "Now, I'm stuck here and have no idea if I'll ever be able to get back. I've been trying to figure it out, but I don't know if I can do it on my own."
"Well," he said decisively, "you're not on your own anymore. I'll help you. But first, I think we have to find Lois. Do you have any idea where she might go?"
Lois closed her eyes and took a deep breath. The sense of relief almost made her lightheaded. She wasn't alone among enemies anymore. She had an ally.
"Lois?" he asked. "Are you okay?"
She opened her eyes and tried to smile. "Yeah. I didn't realize how scared I was. I've gotten too used to working out problems with Clark. I do have an idea. In her place, I'd want to hide out someplace that Lex wouldn't think of -- that he wouldn't connect with me. That's why I said I couldn't stay here. This is the first place he'll think of, and I didn't want to put you in more danger."
Clark was nodding. "I can see that, but if he really intends to kill me -- and after what happened outside, I think we can assume he does -- I can't see that it matters, except that you don't want him to find you here."
She nodded. "But," she added, "let's not make unnecessary trouble. It'll be better if he doesn't find me at all."
"I'm not arguing. So, what do you think my Lois did?"
"Well," Lois said, "I was looking through the folders on her computer and I saw one that I did the research for a few years ago, but I never wrote the story. I was careful not to do anything to draw attention to that particular folder; as a matter of fact, I went to a lot of effort to draw attention to some other stories I did. They don't know that I know how Lex was monitoring me back when I was engaged to him, so I'm pretty sure they don't realize I know they're monitoring my computer." She broke off. "Why are you grinning?"
He shook his head and his grin became wider. "You sure babble like my Lois," he said.
"I don't babble!" Lois said, a little indignantly. "It's just the way I organize my thoughts!"
She could see him fighting to erase the grin. "Right," he said. "Go on."
"Well, anyway, the story was about the Hobbs Women's Shelter. It hit me that she might have gone to it -- or to one like it -- for just a few days, to hide while he hunted for her. She couldn't know that whoever is behind this weird transfer put another Lois in her place, so that Lex doesn't even realize she's gone. In her place, I wouldn't have run like she did unless I had the evidence on him that I needed. She's probably trying to figure out how to get it to Henderson or someone else that she trusts, without getting caught."
"So, Henderson's not on Luthor's payroll?"
"Well, in my world he wasn't, but a lot of other cops were, along with a couple of the Assistant DAs and half the judges in town. Do you trust him?"
He seemed to consider for a long moment. Then, "Yeah, I trust him. If Henderson's not honest, then no one is." He got to his feet. "Let's get the phone directory and find the addresses for the women's shelters in the city. Superman can check them out for us in fifteen minutes."
"It looks like there are five women's shelters in the city," Clark said.
Lois nodded and glanced at the clock on the end table. "They're all closed up for the night, now. What are we going to do?"
"We'll have to check them out," Clark said. "Superman can fly overhead and x-ray them from above. I don't think they'd let even him in at this time of night."
"I'm sure they wouldn't," Lois agreed. "Are you going to call Superman right now?"
"First," Clark said, "if you don't mind, we're going to find you a place to stay for the night. You're tired out. After you're somewhere safe, I'll get hold of Superman and he can check the shelters. If she's not in any of them, we can try something else."
The thought of simply turning the investigation over to Clark and Superman, without remaining involved herself, went against the grain, but she had to admit that he was right. She was exhausted after the events of the evening, and the cut ankle was throbbing like a sore tooth. And, besides the necessity of remaining out of sight, she didn't have anywhere near the resources that Superman could bring to bear.
Clark seemed to read her mind. "I promise if we find anything, I'll call you first thing."
She leaned back on the old sofa and closed her eyes. "You're right. But where am I going to stay?"
"I have an idea," Clark said. "Mortie was worried about you, when he talked to me. He told me that if I needed help, to call him."
"I can't stay with Mortie!"
"No, of course not, but no one is watching him."
"Oh," Lois said.
Clark reached for the telephone, tucked the receiver between his ear and shoulder and started to dial. And paused. He put the receiver down.
"What's the matter?" Lois asked.
"I don't want to risk my phone being bugged," he said. "If Luthor bugged your compact and other stuff of yours, he's probably watching me, too. He knows I'm his enemy."
Lois sat straight up. "Could he have bugged your apartment?"
Clark had risen to his feet and turned partly away from her. He removed his glasses and polished the lenses with his handkerchief before replacing them. "I don't think so," he said, turning back. "My alarm system would have triggered."
"Since when do you have an alarm system on your apartment?"
He gave her a slight smile. "Ever since Jack broke into the place last spring. Let's get out of here and head over to Mortie's. He doesn't live all that far away if you take a shortcut through the park. He can check you into a motel, so no one ever sees your face -- or mine," he added. "I think that would be best, don't you?"
"You're probably right," Lois said. "You're going to be careful, too, aren't you?"
"Of course I am," Clark said, quietly. "And as soon as I know anything, I'll tell you. If we can find Lois -- my Lois, that is -- we'll decide what to do after we know what the situation is. And we can't forget the guy you think may be behind your being here."
"I haven't," Lois said.
"Neither have I," Clark said. "We need to get you back where you belong."
"If it's possible," Lois said a little glumly.
"Hey," Clark said. "It's not like Lois Lane to give up. If someone brought you here, they can take you back."
"If we can catch him," Lois said.
"From what you say about seeing him twice, and then that email --" Clark made a face. "It sounds to me like he's having fun watching you struggle."
"It kind of seems like it," Lois agreed. "But if he's the guy I've seen three times, I've never seen him before in my life."
"Well," Clark pointed out, "he certainly knows who you are, and the email sure sounded like he was enjoying himself. My guess is that he's going to stick around as long as you keep entertaining him. If he is the person you've seen three times, he probably doesn't realize you've spotted him."
"Probably not," Lois said. "I hope not, anyhow."
"If you see him again, point him out to me, or Superman," Clark said. "One way or another, we'll find out."
He didn't say how, but Lois thought that this Clark seemed to have become considerably more proactive than her Clark in the months since his Lois had married Lex. Maybe he'd had to. Or maybe it was just because the woman he loved was in trouble and he was determined to help her.
Was it possible that her Clark, the Clark of her world, had told her a lie out of some misplaced sense of chivalry? Would he do such a thing?
Now that was a really stupid question, she told herself. Of course he would. If he thought for a moment that she might be made uncomfortable working with a partner who was in love with her, of course he'd let her off the hook. Well, if she ever got home again, she'd at least give him more of a chance. Who knew what might happen? The fact that the Clark of this timeline hadn't lied meant that it was at least a possibility, didn't it?
"Lois?" Clark asked. "Are you there?"
"Huh? Oh, yeah. I was just thinking about something," she said.
"Oh. Well, do you think you can walk on that ankle? I'd like to get you someplace safe as quickly as possible. We don't know if those two guys are going to go running to Luthor or not."
"Lex is in Zurich," Lois said. "At least, he told me that was where he was going."
"They might run to whichever subordinate it is that he told to hire them, though," Clark reminded her. "I doubt Luthor is going to do the dirty work, himself."
"Sometimes he does," Lois said. "At least, in my world, he did. It came out during the investigations after he died. I think he didn't like to leave the important details to be handled by somebody who might mess up."
"I can understand that," Clark said, thoughtfully. "I imagine Mr. Luthor has a lot to hide. No point in giving subordinates the power to blackmail him if he doesn't have to."
"Exactly," Lois said. She pushed herself out of the sofa cushions. "I guess we'd better go."
"The stairs are this way," Clark said.
Lois winced at the thought of climbing stairs. Her ankle was throbbing.
"The elevator takes forever," Clark elaborated. He pushed open the door to the stairs. "Want me to carry you?"
"I'll make it," Lois said grimly.
"Here," Clark said. "Put your arm over my shoulder. I don't bite, I promise."
She hesitated a second and obeyed, reminding herself that, other-world version or not, this was Clark, her best friend. He slipped an arm around her waist and together they started up the stairs.
Clark's assistance seemed to improve the situation considerably, she thought. Her ankle didn't even hurt as much as before. They reached the second floor with relative ease, and Clark knocked on the heavy door directly to the right of the stairs.
From inside, Mortie's familiar voice said, "Just a minute!" Lois could hear the footsteps as he crossed the carpet and then there was silence as Mortie probably checked through the peephole.
After several seconds, the door opened. "Hi, Clark," Mortie said. "I didn't expect to see..." His voice trailed off. "Lois?" he said. "Holy..." He stepped back, opening the door wider. "Come on in."
Clark let Lois precede him through the door and followed, pulling it to after him. "Better sit down and put that foot up," he said.
Mortie's gaze flicked downward, and his eyebrows flew up. He gestured at the nearest chair. "Sit down," he said. "What happened?"
"Two of Luthor's goons attacked me," Clark said. "Lois plunged in headfirst and took one of them out, but the guy nicked her with his knife."
Lois discovered that she was staring at Mortie. Of all the persons that she had seen in this world whose counterparts she had known in her own, Mortie was the most unlike his other self. A Vietnam veteran, Mortie was somewhere in his mid-forties, but the man in her world could have been a good ten years older. His hair had been heavily streaked with silver and his face deeply lined.
This Mortie looked his age. His hair was mostly dark, except for the streaks of silver over his ears, and the lines on his face were barely noticeable. He was wearing a white undershirt and the skull tattoo on his left biceps rippled as he reached past Clark to lock the door.
Clark led her to the nearest chair and pushed the ottoman forward to where she could rest her foot on it. Lois settled back in the seat with a sigh of relief. "Can I get you anything to drink?" Mortie asked. "Coffee?"
Lois shook her head. Clark sank onto a straight-backed wooden chair. "Mortie, we need a little help."
"I figured that," Mortie said. "Especially after that call this morning. What's going on? Why all the drama?"
"Lex," Lois said. "He's a crime boss. He's after Clark because of the gunrunning story he wrote a few days ago."
One of Mortie's eyebrows crawled up. "I've suspected as much for a while," he said. "I take it he doesn't know you're here."
Lois shook her head. Mortie glanced at Clark. "What do you need?"
"Lois needs a place to stay temporarily," Clark said. "If you can find her a room --"
"Say no more." Mortie nodded. "Some place where Luthor won't think of looking, and without any connection to either of you. Do you," he added, turning back to Lois, "by any chance have any evidence we can use?"
"Not on me," Lois said. "I can tell you where to look, though."
"Better than nothing," Mortie said. "I take it you aren't ready to go to the cops with this."
"Not yet," Clark said. He added, "We're still looking for a specific witness. Besides, you know the situation with the cops in Metropolis -- better than most, I imagine."
What did he mean by that, Lois wondered. Then she saw the sharp look that Mortie shot at Clark.
"I knew you were good, Kent," Mortie remarked, "but you're more observant than I thought. Does anyone else know?"
"No," Clark said.
"Observant?" Lois asked.
Mortie shrugged. "Tell her."
"Mortie works for Henderson," Clark said. "He's part of a task force here in Metropolis, working to bring down the Boss."
"I'd like to know how you know that," Mortie said. "I was sure I hadn't slipped up anywhere."
"Let's say I have some resources most people don't have," Clark said. "Superman helped me out, for one. He and I want to see Luthor brought down as much as Henderson does."
"I imagine you do," Mortie said. He gave a one-sided grin. "Okay, I guess I didn't slip as bad as I thought."
"You're an undercover cop?" Lois asked.
"Not exactly," Mortie said. "I'm a newsman, but right now I'm also helping out Henderson. We know Luthor has it in for Kent. He's got a guy in the Star's newsroom keeping an eye on him -- so I'm there, too."
"That would be Kelley," Clark interjected.
Mortie shot Clark a respectful look. "Right. Anyway, Henderson has a hunch that it could lead to bigger and better things."
"Maybe," Clark said. "I think this might be more to your taste, though. If we move fast enough, Luthor may not realize what's happening until it's too late."
Lois nodded. The motel room wasn't exactly the height of luxury, but it was clean, there were towels in the bathroom, and the bed looked comfortable. "It'll do for tonight. It's better than sharing a bed with Le -- Luthor."
"Yeah." Mortie shook his head. "You've got guts, Lois. I have to give you that."
Lois grimaced. "Guts doesn't come into it," she said. "It's something I have to do. I can't let him go on hurting innocent people. That's not why I became an investigative journalist."
Mortie didn't answer. He checked the room carefully. "It looks all right," he said. "You have my number. If anything happens that scares you, call me -- or Kent. That might be a better choice, actually. He has a line to Superman. I'll let Henderson know that you're wanting to talk to him."
Lois nodded. The fact that Superman had gotten involved in this situation was reassuring. She was sure that Clark had told him the story she'd given him, but she was just as sure that Superman would protect her, if he could. "Does he know where I am?"
"Not yet, but he will shortly." Mortie turned toward the door. "Kent told me to remind you that we'll let you know if anything important happens."
Lois nodded again. She was beginning to regret her insistence that she not stay with Mortie or Clark. By herself, this way, it was going to be easy to start imagining all kinds of horrors. What if one of Lex's people was on her trail right now? What if someone was just waiting out there for Mortie to leave?
Mortie seemed to read her mind -- not that the thoughts in her head were all that difficult to figure out. "No one followed us. I was watching, and Kent said he was going to alert Superman to keep an eye on you until you were safely tucked away."
Lois swallowed and managed to nod. "I'll be okay."
"Just keep the door and windows locked," Mortie said. "And if you get nervous, call." He nodded at the phone. "Besides, you can always yell 'Help, Superman!'"
"I know. It's just nerves."
"I'd say you're entitled to them," Mortie said. He opened the door. "We'll call you if Kent or Superman finds your witness. I hope she's as useful as you think she is."
"So do I," Lois said.
"As soon as I can contact Henderson without attracting attention, I'll let him know you'd like to see him."
"Yeah," Lois said. "Tell him I said to be careful. Chief Marks may be on Luthor's payroll."
Mortie's eyebrows flew up but he only said, "I'll pass that along." He stepped out of the room and closed the door.
Lois turned the lock with a decisive click. She might as well get ready for bed, she thought. She glanced at her wrist for the fourth time in ten minutes, remembering each time that she had deliberately left the gold watch sitting on the dresser in the penthouse suite. There was a wall-clock, though, and the hands pointed to nearly eleven. A little sleep might be just the thing for her. The world was bound to look better to her tomorrow morning.
Lois finished her bedtime routine quickly. Clark had bought her a toothbrush, toothpaste and hairbrush; she washed her face and gave her hair a perfunctory brushing instead of her usual thorough job. Her hair follicles were just going to have to lump it tonight. She crawled between the sheets and closed her eyes, certain that she was too keyed up to sleep, but after fifteen minutes or so of staring up into the dark of the bedroom, she found her thoughts becoming more and more incoherent. Her last clear thought before she slipped over the edge of sleep was to wonder if Superman had had any luck.
The phone ringing awakened her and she fumbled for the receiver before she remembered that she was hiding out in a Motel 5 next to the Bayside Parkway. She could hear the traffic over the ringing of the phone. Slowly, she picked up the receiver and held her nose with the fingers of her free hand as she answered. "Hello?"
"Lois?" Clark's voice said. "Are you all right? You sound like you have a stuffy nose."
Quickly she dropped her hand. "No, I just wasn't sure who it might be. Did...did Superman find..."
Clark's voice said, "We're not sure. There was a woman who's been staying at the Fourteenth Street shelter, but last night she left just before they closed for the night. She said she was afraid to stay in one place too long. I'd like you to come with me and see if the woman in charge recognizes you."
"Uh...okay." Lois looked at the wall clock, surprised to discover that it was seven-thirty in the morning. "What are we going to tell her?"
"You're the woman's twin sister," Clark said. "I'll pick you up in half an hour."
She checked out the window again. The November day was bright and sunny, which figured. Today she would have wished for fog, rain -- anything that would make covering her face a reasonable proposition. As it was, she was going to have to rely on her clothing and her hair and makeup to hide her identity.
As she watched, a yellow VW bug turned into the parking lot. It was one of the old classics that one still saw occasionally. The little car pulled into a parking spot directly in front of her room, and after a moment, a man climbed out. It took her a moment to recognize him until he stood up straight and turned to face her. It was Clark.
Clark certainly didn't look much like Clark right now; she had to admit that. As she watched, he pulled his glasses down slightly and turned his head, checking in all directions in the same way as she remembered the Clark of her universe doing when he wanted to look closely at something. Really, she thought, he should see an ophthalmologist about the problem, since his glasses didn't seem to be doing a good enough job. But maybe he had more difficulties with his vision than he'd told her about. He'd even missed Jason Trask in that picture, way back when they were investigating Bureau 39, she recalled. Clark didn't talk much about his own troubles. He was too busy helping everyone else. In fact, she probably needed to help him out once in a while, since he seemed to spend so much of his time bailing her out of jams. Like this one. Talk about the granddaddy of all possible jams!
His knock terminated the mental babble. Lois opened the door, raising an eyebrow at the ratty beard and mustache that he had worn during their investigation of the Metro Club. "Charlie King, I presume."
His teeth flashed in a wide grin. "Bartender extraordinaire," he elaborated. "May I come in?"
She stood back, opening the door wider. He entered and waited until she had closed the door to present her with the coat that hung over his arm. "Here. I borrowed this from a friend of mine. It doesn't look like anything Lois Luthor would wear."
"How would you know?" she inquired. "I thought you hadn't seen her since she..." She broke off at his expression. "I'm sorry, Clark. I guess it's pretty awful when someone you care about the way you care about her is married to somebody else."
He managed a careless shrug that somehow didn't look careless at all. "Yeah. I haven't seen her since she married Luthor, but I've seen pictures of her in the society pages and stuff. I've been worried about her. Superman tried to keep an eye on her, too, but..." He broke off. "It wouldn't be so bad if it had been somebody decent," he said after a pause. "It was pretty disappointing that she wouldn't trust me when I told her about him."
She thrust an arm into the sleeve of the coat that he held for her. "I know -- now. I wouldn't listen to my Clark, either, you know, and I should have known better. I knew, underneath, that Clark wouldn't make stuff like that up about anyone who didn't deserve it. I just -- I don't know, really, why I wouldn't listen. I think it was because it felt like he was challenging my taste in men, or my judgement, or something. I felt as if I was under attack, and so I fought back, accusing him of jealousy and all kinds of things that I knew really weren't true. Mad Dog Lane at her worst, hell-bent on doing things her own way." She looked up at his face and was surprised at the astonished expression that she surprised there. "I didn't care who got hurt or what happened as long as I proved to everyone, and myself," she added, "that my judgement wasn't at fault -- all the while knowing down deep that something wasn't right. If Superman, himself, had told me the truth about Lex, I might not have listened. I'll never know for sure."
"Is that how you saw it?" he asked. "You know, it never occurred to me that she might think a thing like that. I was scared to death for her -- and jealous, too," he confessed sheepishly. "She was right about the jealous part. But I wouldn't have tried to stop her after she said she didn't -- well, you know, feel that way about me -- if the man she wanted to marry had been a decent guy."
"I know. I'm not a very good friend, sometimes," Lois said, unhappily. "I'm too self-centered to be a good friend to anyone, I think. I get wound up in myself, and then it doesn't matter what anyone else says -- it's me, me, me. I'm sorry, Clark."
Clark shook his head. "That isn't true. When someone's in trouble, you'll do just about anything to help him. I know. Remember when I had amnesia? It was you that made me remember who I really was."
"You said you remembered Superman."
"Yes, but it was you who made him real. And then I remembered all the other stuff." He lowered his glasses slightly to look over them out the motel window, pushed them back into place and opened the outer door. "We need to go."
"Yeah." Lois took a deep breath and stepped out ahead of him into the morning sunlight. Clark followed, shutting the door behind them, and then gently pulled her back. "Walk a little behind me. I don't think anyone's around that shouldn't be, but it will be just as well if no one gets a good look at you."
She stopped in her tracks. Where had her caution gone? As soon as Clark had appeared on the scene it seemed as if she had stopped being afraid that Lex or some of his hirelings would see her. "Sorry. You're right."
"Let's just be careful," Clark said. They proceeded to the yellow VW and Clark opened the passenger door for her.
"Don't tell me you finally got a car," Lois said as she got carefully into the seat.
"Watch your head," Clark said. "No, Mortie got hold of it from somewhere." He closed her door and went around the rear of the car to open the driver's door. It wasn't until they had pulled out of the parking space and were waiting for a break in the traffic passing by on the access road, that he spoke again.
"You know, I did some research last night after I got home."
"Research?" she asked.
"Yeah. I looked up some stuff that science fiction authors had come up with about worlds of alternate reality -- where things are almost the same, except where different choices were made. It was interesting stuff, although I wouldn't want to be in some of the possible worlds I read about. There was one where the Nazis won World War Two, and a bunch of others. Scary. Anyhow, it made me think. I've made some choices that weren't too good, myself. Lois had a crush on Superman. I guess she probably still does."
"She might," Lois said, trying to keep her expression bland.
He glanced at her with a small smile. "I guess you still do, too, huh?"
She squirmed slightly. "A little. I think it's probably pretty stupid of me, though. I was dancing with Superman at the Metro Halloween Ball, before all this happened. I made some lame joke about him being the world's most eligible bachelor, and he said he couldn't marry because every bad guy in the world would try to control him by threatening his wife."
"That's what I've always thought," Clark said, surprising her. "If he married, it would have to be done secretly."
"At the very least," Lois said, repeating the words that Superman had spoken to her during that dance.
"Exactly," Clark said. "That's not to say that he couldn't marry, but it would have to be done very carefully. Anyhow, I've started to think that I was unfair to Lois by being jealous of her crush on Superman. It's pretty hard for an ordinary man to compete against the perfect hero, which is how she sees him."
"I know," Lois said. "The trouble with that is, of course, that no one is perfect -- not even Superman. He was rude to me the night he came to see me before I married Lex -- and knowing what I know now, I don't blame him a bit. I deserved it. But I had the feeling he was pretty offended about the whole thing, and he reacted by being rude. I was angry at him for that, as well as hurt, which was why I accepted Lex's proposal the next day. Up until then I'd been sort of hesitating. I guess it just proves that even Superman isn't perfect."
"He never claimed to be perfect, Lois."
"Oh, I know. But a lot of people see him that way. I did. It isn't very realistic, of course, but hero-worship often isn't."
"Yeah, I realize that now," he said. "Anyhow, the point of all this is that if I can get my Lois out of this mess, I'm going to make some changes. For one thing, I'm going to be more honest with her."
"Clark, you're the most honest guy I know!"
He pulled out into the heavy morning traffic. "In most ways," he said. "But there's one important thing I didn't tell her, and I should have. I didn't exactly lie, but I let her assume some things that weren't true. Lois wouldn't deliberately do something that would harm me, and she isn't shallow. Maybe it will make things better. They can hardly be worse, right now."
"Sure they could," Lois said. "Lex could get his hands on her. I don't know exactly what you're talking about, Clark. I can't think of anything that my Clark hasn't been honest about with me, so maybe that's one of the differences between our two worlds."
He glanced over his shoulder and changed lanes. "Maybe. The important thing now is to find her, and figure out a way to get you home."
"If it's possible," Lois said.
"It has to be," Clark said firmly. His mouth was set, and the expression on his face was one of sheer determination. She had seen her Clark look like that once in a while, and she found it oddly reassuring. Somehow, she couldn't doubt that if the thing could be done, that Clark Kent would somehow manage it.
The Fourteenth Street Women's Shelter was a worn brick building set some distance back from the street. A parking lot next to it held a van that was several years old, but had been carefully washed and waxed. A neat lawn in front of the house was carefully trimmed, and although the grass was somewhat sparse, Lois could see that someone had weeded the flower beds and pruned back the bushes, thoroughly, if somewhat inexpertly.
She glanced nervously at Clark as they walked up the peeling steps. A large, covered front porch, with a swinging seat dangling on chains from above, extended the entire width of the house. From inside, Lois could hear voices speaking faintly, and from somewhere not far away, she could hear the excited shouts of several children apparently engaged in some kind of game.
"Okay," Clark said softly. "Here goes." He rapped on the door.
Silence for several moments, and then the door opened. A woman stood there. She was shorter than Lois, and about ten years older. She observed both of them for a full fifteen seconds before she spoke. "Yes?"
"Superman was here earlier," Clark said courteously. "Asking about a woman who was staying here until last night. He told you that I'd be here later, with someone you could talk to."
"I remember," the woman said. She looked at Lois, frowning slightly.
"Did she look anything like me?" Lois asked, quickly.
"I need to know why you're asking these things," the woman said flatly.
"She's my twin," Lois said. "She's trying to avoid her husband. We suspect that he's looking for her and we need to find her before he does."
The woman looked doubtful. "Well...it's against the rules to talk about anyone staying here."
"Then she was here?" Lois asked. "Please, we only want to help her!"
"Well..." The woman examined her face closely. "Yeah," she finally said grudgingly. "You look a lot like her, but I don't know where she is now. She was here until last evening, but she left last night. She said something about meeting someone who might be able to help her, and having to get him a sandwich and torte to pay him with. It didn't make much sense."
Lois looked quickly at Clark. "I think I know," she said. "Thank you," she added, to the still slightly suspicious woman in the doorway. "You've been very helpful."
"Well, sure. Bobby Bigmouth."
Clark blinked at her. "Who or what is a Bobby Bigmouth?"
Lois turned to stare at him. "You know who..." she broke off. "No, I guess you don't. I didn't tell my Clark about Bobby until after we went back to work at the Daily Planet -- after Arianna Carlin tried to turn Metropolis against Superman. That never happened here."
"Okay," Clark said. "I'm lost. Why don't you just start at the beginning?"
"Sure," Lois said. "After Lex fell to his death, Franklin Stern bought the Planet and rebuilt it. With me so far?"
"Stern, huh," Clark said.
"Yeah," Lois said. "And you should tell your Lois after this is all over, that if a woman called Arianna Carlin comes along and tries to convince you and her that Lois is crazy, not to believe her. Arianna is Lex Luthor's ex-wife. Anyway, it was afterwards that I introduced my Clark to Bobby Bigmouth. He's the best snitch in the city, in my own, unbiased, opinion."
"Ah," Clark said. "Now I understand what the name means. But why do you think that my Lois is meeting this Bobby Bigmouth?"
"The sandwich and the torte told me that," Lois explained. "Bobby's payment for information is food. Lots of it. He eats constantly and he's skinny as a rail. He must have a metabolic problem or something, because he's always eating the most grossly fattening stuff I've ever seen and never gains a pound. We need to get hold of Bobby Bigmouth."
"How do we do that?" Clark asked.
"I have his phone number," Lois said. "Actually, it's an answering service."
"An answering service?"
Lois nodded. "Yep. Bobby is no ordinary snitch."
"I can see that," Clark said after a startled moment. "Okay, I guess the next move is to call Bobby Bigmouth."
"Well," Lois said, "we can call his number, or we can check out the Gallery Street Pool Hall."
"Bobby hangs out there a lot of the time. The Imperial Panda House is right across the street."
Clark frowned at her for a moment and then enlightenment dawned. "Oh, the Chinese restaurant. I guess that makes sense."
"Bobby loves Peking duck," Lois said, "and he practically lives for slippery shrimp. And, in an emergency, when the Panda is closed, Al's Diner is right next door."
"Naturally," Clark said. "Okay, let's go."
"Idiot!" she said.
Clark started the car again and they moved slowly forward. "There's the pool hall. What now?"
"Well, we could stroll over to see if Bobby's there. If your Lois met him, he might know where she is. Or, I guess we could follow him and talk to him when there's no one around to see us."
Clark shrugged. "I guess so. You're going to have to point him out."
He found a parking space for the VW -- something of a miracle, but the car was small and was able to fit in a space that none of the larger ones could negotiate. Clark cut the engine and glanced around doubtfully at their chosen parking location. "I'm not sure this is legal. We might come back and find a ticket on it."
"If there is, we'll pay it," Lois said. "Mortie and whoever he got the car from never need to know about it."
"Yeah, I guess so." Clark turned to look through the back window of the car. "We can see in the front from here. I put a pair of binoculars in the glove compartment. See if you can see anything with them, first."
"Good idea." Lois fished out the binoculars and twisted around to peer out the tiny rear window of the Volkswagen. "How do you adjust...ah." She found herself looking into the pool hall's front window. Several men and one woman were clustered near one of the pool tables, apparently watching the game. But behind them, barely visible, was the snack bar, and seated on a stool, a cellular phone to his ear and munching on what appeared to be a sandwich, was Bobby Bigmouth.
"He's there," she said. "Talking on a cell phone." She passed the binoculars to Clark.
Clark took the binoculars and lowered his glasses, looking over them in the direction of the establishment. After a long minute, he put the binoculars to his eyes. "That scrawny guy with the tuna sandwich?" he asked after a moment.
"How can you tell it's tuna?" Lois asked.
"He just dripped some on his chin. It looks like tuna," Clark said. "He's sitting on the third stool from the left. Is that him?"
Lois took the binoculars and checked. "That's the one. Now what?"
"Let's just wait," Clark said, after a second look. "Maybe he'll come out. I don't know about you, but I don't want a lot of people to see us walk in there -- and I doubt he does, either." He raised the binoculars to his eyes again.
"Yeah, probably not," Lois agreed. "What's he doing?"
"Talking on his phone. Just a minute. I'm trying to see what he's saying."
"What do -- Oh yeah, you read lips." Lois didn't see how he could possibly tell what the man was saying from this distance and that angle, but she fell silent, waiting.
"He just said 'Lois'," Clark said suddenly, setting down the binoculars. "I think he's -- yes, he's leaving!"
Less than a minute later, they were out of the car, standing facing each other in apparent conversation, waiting tensely for Bobby Bigmouth to appear.
Lois maintained a casual posture, watching out of the corner of her eye as Bobby Bigmouth emerged from the pool hall. The Bobby Bigmouth of this timeline looked exactly the same as the one in hers, she thought as she watched him look around with apparent disinterest. He paused, popping what was probably the last piece of sandwich into his mouth, and then turned to stroll down the sidewalk with all the appearance of a man with no place in particular in mind, but walking all the same.
"He's coming this way," she said, softly.
"Maybe he's headed for the crosswalk," Clark said, his voice equally low.
"Maybe. Here he comes."
A moment later, Bobby's drab figure ambled past them. Lois and Clark waited a moment and then followed him, moving at a leisurely pace. Bobby stopped at the corner and punched the crosswalk signal button.
Behind him, Lois and Clark shuffled along, attempting to stay well behind the snitch. As they approached the corner, the light turned green and at the same instant, the "Walk" sign lit up. Bobby started across and Clark said audibly, "Hurry up, Mary, we're going to miss the light!"
They crossed behind Bobby. Lois saw the man speed up his steps measurably, and a moment after reaching the sidewalk, he turned right toward the Imperial Panda House, four buildings down.
He couldn't be going in there, Lois thought. The restaurant was closed.
Bobby went on by, and stepped into the narrow alley that ran between the Imperial Panda and the dry cleaning business next door.
Clark had pulled down his glasses again, she noticed abstractedly, and was looking after the man.
"This way," he said suddenly. "There's an alley behind the restaurant. It opens on Cypress."
Cypress was the cross street. Clark led the way briskly down the sidewalk, and sure enough, when they passed the shabby, brick building that occupied the corner, Lois saw that a narrow alley filled the space between it and the one next to it. Water ran down the middle of the alley in a thin, sluggish stream, and the pavement was in a deplorable state of disrepair, but it was a way to follow Bobby without him knowing it, Lois thought, as long as he did what they thought he was doing.
They hurried down the alley, trying to avoid the water and the chunks of broken asphalt. A clothesline hung directly across the alley to the adjoining building, and the dangling clothing half obscured what lay beyond. They ducked under the hanging clothes, trying to be quiet, and ahead, Lois could see the back of a building that had to be the Imperial Panda. Parked next to it was an enormous dumpster.
Clark lifted a finger to his lips. "There's somebody on the other side of the dumpster," he whispered.
"Waiting for Bobby?" she whispered back. She actually had no real fear of being overheard. The sound of traffic passing by on Cypress was enough to drown out anything but the loudest conversation.
"Maybe. I think it's a woman."
"Lois?" she breathed. She hadn't seen anyone, but somehow Clark must have, she thought.
He didn't answer. Together they hugged the bricks of the building next to them, trying to keep the body of the dumpster between them and whoever the person waiting ahead might be.
"Hurry," Clark whispered. "Bobby will be there any second."
Trying to be as quiet as possible, they moved quickly toward the dumpster and pressed their backs against the metal side. Lois nearly held her breath. On the other side of their cover a woman, very possibly the Lois of this universe, was waiting for Bobby Bigmouth.
This close, she could hear the faint scraping of feet as the other person shifted position slightly. The traffic sounds on the street were more muted here, and if she or Clark made a noise, the other person was bound to hear. If it was indeed Lois Luthor, Lois knew she would be listening with every pore of her body. She would be alert for anything that might mean somebody else was nearby.
Even so, she almost jumped when she heard Bobby Bigmouth's approaching footsteps and his cheerful, "Hi!"
"Shh!" The other person shushed him quickly.
"Nobody followed me," Bobby's voice was softer. "You got my lunch?"
"A king-sized deli sandwich, chips, a milkshake and a torte, straight from Dana's bakery," her own voice replied.
"Great!" There was a rustling of paper as Bobby checked the offering. "Okay, whatcha need from me?"
"What's the word about...me?"
"It's out this morning. There's a hunt on for you."
A soft, indrawn breath. Then: "I figured. I'm just surprised it took so long."
"Yeah," Bobby said. "My source says they discovered it last night. He got home late and you weren't there."
A pause that held a surprised quality. "What?"
"That's what I heard."
"That's not possible. I disappeared on Halloween. How could they not have noticed? What's he up to?"
Lois could almost see Bobby's shrug. "Dunno."
Silence again. Then: "I have the stuff I told you about. Can you get it to Henderson without getting caught?"
"Sure," Bobby said. "Might take a few days."
"Be very careful," Lois Luthor's voice said. "You know what will happen if he even suspects you have it." Lois heard a rustling noise, and then silence.
Bobby whistled softly. "Hot stuff. I oughta charge extra for this."
More rustling. "That's for a Peking duck dinner. Don't let me down."
Bobby's voice again. "I won't. You know my word's good."
"Get out of here, now," Lois's voice sounded as if it had suddenly run out of energy. "I don't want to risk anyone seeing you with me."
More silence, and then the sound of Bobby's retreating footsteps.
Lois started to push away from the dumpster, but Clark's hand on her shoulder stopped her. He had his finger to his lips again. Lois held her breath.
Silence, and then the faintest of sobs. The other woman was crying. Clark's hand squeezed her shoulder and then with a swift, silent step, he had moved away from her and ducked around the corner of the big dumpster. She heard his voice.
A shrill gasp, and then silence. A long silence. Then:
"Clark? What are you doing here?"
"Trying to find you," he said quietly.
"Clark, it's dangerous! I didn't want to involve you in this!"
"I know," his voice said, still very quietly. "But I'm already involved. You're my partner, and you're in trouble. Let me help."
"Clark, if Lex finds you with me he'll kill you, too. You have to get away from me and stay away."
"I'm already on his hit list," Clark said softly. "My spies say he's ordered me killed, as well as Superman. When I found out what you'd done, I knew I had to find you before he did."
A long silence, and then the sudden rustle of movement. Clark said softly, "I won't let him harm you. Trust me."
"Clark, you know what he's capable of better than anybody! You told me what he was!"
"Yes, I do know. But you're safe with me. I guarantee it."
How could he guarantee Lois Luthor's safety? Lois wondered. He couldn't even guarantee his own.
"Clark, don't be crazy! He's going to kill both of us if he catches us!"
"If he tries, we'll get him on attempted murder." Clark sounded very sure of himself. "Don't you think I'd get some backup? Superman is keeping an eye on us right now, but we need to get out of here before anybody gets curious."
"If I go back to your place, they'll just be waiting for me to show up there. That's why I didn't go there when I got away," Lois said. "They may have followed you, today."
"They would have, I'm sure, if they could have found me," Clark said quietly. "But you see, I knew they'd be watching my place as soon as I realized what you'd done -- and I realized it before they did. I've been -- somewhere else."
"Oh. But Clark, how did you find me? Bobby said he's never met you, and I didn't tell you about him."
"I know. But somebody else did. She knows you pretty well."
"Yes. There's more going on here than you realize. Somebody helped me. She wanted to find you almost as much as I did."
"Lois," Clark said. "Come around here, will you? I'd like you to meet Lois."
"Are you cra --" Lois Luthor's voice broke off as Lois stepped around the side of the dumpster. Her eyes widened.
"Lois," Clark said, "meet Lois."
"What on Earth --"
"I'll explain," Clark said, "but I think we ought to get out of here before somebody notices us, don't you?"
"Definitely," Lois said. She smiled at her counterpart. "Clark's right. We'll explain everything, but I think we should do it somewhere other than here. The last thing we need is for somebody to draw Lex's attention to this part of town -- and Bobby. Don't you think so?"
Lois Luthor stared at her, and then, to Lois's surprise, seemed to completely shelve the mystery in front of her in favor of action. "Okay, but you can bet you're going to explain later! Do you have transportation out of here?"
"We have a car across the street," Clark said. "If you two will wait in the alley, I can go and get it."
"Don't tell me you actually bought a car," Lois Luthor said. "A classic VW bug doesn't seem quite you, Clark."
"It's borrowed," Clark said.
"Where are we going?" Lois asked. She reached down and gingerly felt the bandaged ankle. It hurt. Running around town on foot definitely wasn't good for it.
"Until we figure out what to do, none of us dares to stay in one place very long," Clark said. "Luthor's going to keep looking for Lois, and a stationary target is easier to hit. He's probably already got his goons checking out the motels around Metropolis."
"Probably," Lois said.
Lois Luthor looked at her the same way she had been doing since the two of them had first seen each other. "Exactly how do you fit into this?" she asked. "Who are you?"
"That's going to take some explaining," Lois said. "Clark believed me, but only after I gave him some information that I couldn't possibly know unless my story was true."
"Then why not tell me?"
Lois bit her lip. "I guess I'd probably better," she said. "But please try to keep an open mind until I'm finished. It's a pretty unbelievable story. This all started for me on Halloween night -- at the Metro Halloween Ball..."
She talked while Clark drove, describing what had happened to her, and finally presenting her conclusions. Lois Luthor listened to her in complete silence until she finished.
"And that's it," Lois said, finally. "It's a crazy story. Nobody knows that more than I do, but that's the reason Lex didn't realize you were gone until last night."
"I found the Kryptonite cage," Lois Luthor said abruptly. The words dropped into dead silence.
"You found it?" Clark said, his voice oddly tense. "Superman tried to find it afterwards, but it had disappeared. Where was it?"
"In the basement of Lex Tower." Lois Luthor's voice was flat. "The sub-basement, actually. It was in a room underneath the wine cellar, completely lined with lead. I found it while I was looking for -- something else. I knew what it was. I'd already seen the report on Series K."
"Series K?" Lois asked, although she could guess what it was. "Mrs. Cox mentioned it to Lex while I was in his office one day -- back in my world."
"The Kryptonite experiments," Lois Luthor said. "The cage was part of it. The man I married was trying to kill Superman."
"I know," Lois said.
Clark, Lois noted, said nothing, which she expected. Clark never said I told you so, no matter how richly she deserved it. It probably meant that he was a much better person than she was, she thought. In his place, after the way she had treated him, she wouldn't only have rubbed the outcome in, she'd have ground it in as hard as she could. Very few people could say that Lois Lane was a gracious winner or a good loser; as a matter of fact, she knew quite well that she wasn't -- not that she would ever admit it to anyone else.
"Is it still there?" she asked.
Lois Luthor shrugged. "I don't know. Probably. There was no reason for Lex to know that I'd found it." She turned to look at Lois, sitting in the rear seat. "So I know that part of the story is true. What did you tell Clark to convince him of the rest?"
"She told me how Superman escaped the cage," Clark said. Lois thought she had never heard his voice more expressionless. "No one else knew that except me."
"How did you know?" Lois Luthor asked her.
"My Clark told me," Lois said. "I wondered why Superman didn't save Lex when he dived off Lex Tower. It wasn't that I doubted Superman, it was that I needed to know why things happened the way they did. Superman couldn't save him. He was trapped in that cage for a day and a half, and just barely escaped with his life. His powers were completely knocked out for nearly three days afterwards. I already knew about Kryptonite, after Arianna Carlin tried to kill Superman with it, so Clark told me what Superman told him."
Her counterpart's face had gone a shade paler. "While I was at the opera that night, Superman was dying in that cage. Lex took me to dinner and dancing, and on the way home, he was talking about the performance. I asked him about the insurance on the Planet and he told me it was underinsured and it wasn't cost-effective to rebuild it. I believed every word he said." She wiped away a stray tear on her cheek. "It's going to be a long time before I forgive myself for what I've done."
"Lois --" Clark said.
Lois Luthor ignored him. "After I married Lex," she said, "I started to notice things. Little things, like the way my executive assistant always managed to undermine me. Never anything obvious. And how Lex always promised to change things -- but they never changed.
"At first I tried to deny it. I'm pretty good at lying to myself."
"I know," Lois said. "So am I."
The other woman smiled without humor. "I might have been blind about Lex, but I'm not completely stupid. My father used to lie to my mother, too -- never as well as Lex lied, but after a while I began to realize that he was manipulating me -- and that I was being watched everywhere I went, if I was away from the penthouse. It made me suspicious and I started snooping around. When I threw my compact against the wall and found the bug --" She stopped. "I glued it back together so Lex wouldn't realize what I'd found," she continued.
"It was after that that I overheard him on the phone and everything fell into place." She bit her lower lip. "It wasn't hard to figure out where to look once I realized what Lex was doing and what I was looking for. He has an enormous ego, you know. He keeps private records. That was what I gave Bobby to give to Henderson. It won't take him long to verify it. Those records will solve the murders of at least a dozen city officials and a number of business leaders, the destruction of the Daily Planet and the death of the last mayor. Mayor Burns is on his payroll. He was behind the Messenger sabotage, the Smart Kids, the nuclear plant mess when we had the heat wave in November of last year. All of it. The information on the Kryptonite cage -- the Series K research --" She stopped. "I took that. I didn't think people needed to know about Kryptonite. I hid it in case it's needed, but I don't think it will be. There's plenty of evidence."
"So," Clark said, "Basically, we have to keep you away from Luthor until Henderson verifies the evidence and arrests him."
"More or less," Lois Luthor said. "It shouldn't take very long. I took advantage of the Metro Halloween Ball to slip away, you know. I went to that women's shelter --"
"And you weren't going to come to me?" Clark asked. "Lois, you had to have known I'd help you, no matter how much we fought when --" He broke off.
"When you were trying to tell me the truth," she said. "Yes, I knew -- but I couldn't involve you, Clark. I knew that, once I ran, he'd be after me. Lex discards women; he doesn't let them leave him, and he doesn't share. If I involved you, your life would have been in danger, too. If he thought I'd run to you --"
"It doesn't matter," Lois said. "I heard him order Mrs. Cox to have Clark killed. And I heard him planning to kill Superman by using you -- me -- to lure him in. Clark is involved, whether you want him involved or not."
"I know that, now." She glanced at Lois and smiled fractionally. "Thank you -- for helping Clark find me. I didn't know what to do. I was going to try to get out of Metropolis, but Lex's tentacles reach a long way." She turned to look at Clark. "Can you ever forgive me for the way I treated you?"
"Do you even have to ask?" Clark hadn't taken his eyes off the road except for one glance at her, but Lois could hear the feeling in his voice as he spoke to Lois Luthor. There was no question in her mind that Clark still loved the Lois of his world in spite of everything she had put him through. It was something she was going to have to think about, when and if she made it back to her own world. If she ever could. If she wasn't marooned here for life.
"Where are we going?" Lois Luthor asked.
"Mortie Engelman's," Clark said. "We need a safe place to sit down and decide what we should do next."
"How are we going to explain two of us?" Lois asked.
"We don't," Clark said.
"Why Mortie?" Lois Luthor asked. "Where does he come into this?"
"He's working with Henderson to try to bring down Luthor," Lois explained. "I guess Henderson figures he's a little better able to take care of himself than your average reporter."
"Oh yeah," Lois Luthor said. "The Navy Seal background."
"I thought he was with Army Special Forces in Vietnam," Lois said. "At least the Mortie in my world was."
"No," Clark said. "Not our Mortie. He was in Vietnam, but he was a Navy Seal."
"Oh," Lois said.
"I guess not everything is the same between the two timelines," Lois Luthor said.
"I already knew that," Lois said. "Mortie seems to be the one with the biggest differences, at least so far. In my world he's an alcoholic, but he dried out about three or four years ago."
"Well, he picked similar professions," Clark said. "In any case," he added, "I have to return the car, and then maybe he can help us figure out our next move."
"Is this his car?" Lois Luthor asked.
"He borrowed it from a friend. Before we get there, though, I think we need to decide what to call the two of you. 'Lois' isn't going to do."
"She can be Lois," Lois said, nodding at her double. "She was here first."
"What do we call you, then?" Lois Luthor asked.
"Do you have a sister named Lucy?" Lois asked.
"Sure. She's in college right now -- studying to be a vet."
"Then call me Lucy," Lois said. "It's easy to remember and I might even realize you're talking to me."
"Sounds good," Clark said. He turned off the main street into the rundown neighborhood where Mortie lived. "We'll be there in a moment."
"This one is Lois," Clark said. "The one married to Luthor. This is Lucy. Don't ask."
Mortie started to speak and apparently decided against it. "Come in," he said mildly. "I take it Lucy is your mystery witness?"
"Uh -- not exactly," Clark said. "Lois was the mystery witness. Lucy took her place for a couple of days."
"I see," Mortie said. "Okay, I won't ask. But --" He spoke directly to Lois Luthor, "you might want to know that an informant of mine told me the hunt for you is heating up."
"I'd heard," she said.
He nodded, surveying the two of them. "Which one of you was I talking to last night?"
"Me," Lois said. "I wound up in Lois's place on Halloween night. Lex didn't realize I wasn't her."
"Uh huh," Mortie said. "That's quite a trick. The man didn't realize that somebody substituted a double for his wife?"
Lois Luthor glanced at Lois. "I believe it," she said, dryly.
"I didn't plan it that way," Lois said. "So, now what's on the agenda?"
"I've been thinking about that," Clark said. "It may take a couple of days for the evidence to get to Henderson. In the meantime, we don't want to do anything to alert Luthor that he's in any kind of trouble, so the best thing I can think of is to get the two of you out of town, or into hiding, somewhere."
"You too, Clark," Mortie said. "From what I've heard, Luthor is out for your blood. He thinks his wife ran to you."
"Not exactly," Clark said. "Not that it will make any difference to Luthor."
"He'd already ordered Clark killed," Lois interrupted. "I heard him tell Mrs. Cox to take care of Clark, two days ago."
"Regardless of that," Mortie said, "you'll all be better off away from Metropolis. But --" He stopped, as if a thought had occurred to him. "I have a question, Lois. Have you ever seen this man?" He picked up a photograph that had been lying on the end table.
Lois Luthor took the photograph and examined it. "I'm not sure." She held it out to Lois. "Does he look familiar?"
Lois took the photograph and nearly dropped it. It was the man she had seen at the Halloween ball, and later in the park and the cab.
"I take it you have," Mortie said.
"Yeah. Three times. Who is he?"
"He goes by the name of George Temper. He's some kind of advisor to Luthor. Has been for about six or seven months -- since about the time Luthor announced his upcoming marriage."
"Any information on this guy?" Clark asked, reaching out to take the picture from Lois. He frowned thoughtfully at it. "I think I saw him yesterday evening, just before I came back to my apartment. He was at the scene of a jewelry store robbery that Superman broke up."
"What was he doing?" Mortie asked.
"Just standing there, watching."
Lois Luthor took the photo back, frowning. "I have seen him," she said finally. "I knew he looked familiar. He was at some meeting with Lex last week."
"He gets around," Lois said.
"Too much for it to be a coincidence," Clark said. "Where does he come into this, Mortie?"
"That's a good question," Mortie said. "He's called an administrative assistant, which tells us exactly nothing."
"I saw him at the Halloween ball," Lois said. "Only he had a beard and was in some kind of costume. And he was driving the taxi I took when I went back to the penthouse after my morning jog yesterday."
"Really," Mortie said. He didn't seem surprised, but accepted the picture from Lois. "So he was in town yesterday. That's interesting."
"Why?" Lois asked.
"He's just been showing up a lot in the last couple of weeks," Mortie said. "We don't know why yet." He dropped the photo back on the table. "In any case, we need to get you into hiding -- both of you. You too, Clark."
"I can take care of myself," Clark said.
Lois Luthor turned to glare at him. "Clark, if you want to help me, then you're going to come with me. I'm not going to be responsible for your death. I don't think I could bear it," she added, in a much softer tone.
The one sentence worked where Mortie's warnings didn't, Lois thought. She watched Clark's expression change. He hesitated and then gave in. "All right."
If Mortie noticed the abrupt switch in attitude, he didn't let on. "So the only thing to do is to get you out of Metropolis," he said.
"I can manage that," Clark said. "Superman can take us wherever we need to go and not leave a trail."
"How are you going to get hold of him?" Lois asked.
"I'll get him," Clark said. He got to his feet.
"You're not going to show your face on the street, buddy," Mortie said. "If anybody sees through that disguise of yours and notifies Luthor, we're all history. You three stay here and don't answer the door, and I'll be back with a car in half an hour."
"How long have you been working with Henderson?" Lois asked.
"A few months," Mortie said. "Long enough to learn the ropes, anyway." He got to his feet and took the leather jacket from the hook on the door. "Back shortly." Opening the door, he went out.
"You know," Lois said, "Luthor certainly seems to own Metropolis. I don't think he had this much control back in my world."
"Maybe," Clark said. "No one realized he had this much control of Metropolis in our world, either -- even Superman -- until recently. It's as if he feels like he's immune to the law. I think he's been consolidating his power by replacing good people with his puppets. The latest rumor is that he's planning a run for the governor's office."
"Oh, great," Lois said. She leaned back against the sofa cushions and rested her foot on Mortie's coffee table. She would have been more careful if not for the rings and scratches in the varnish. She didn't see how a tennis shoe could do any more damage.
"Exactly. Unless he's stopped soon, he'll be so powerful that no one can touch him."
"This is probably what would have happened in my world if Clark and the others hadn't managed to get the evidence together to implicate him in the destruction of the Daily Planet," Lois said. She shuddered slightly. "It was all Clark," she said. "He worked his brains out to save me from the biggest mistake of my life. I'll always be grateful to him for that, no matter what else happens."
Clark shrugged unhappily. "We tried," he said. "We were blocked at every turn. We knew the evidence was there, but people disappeared, documents disappeared -- it was as if he knew what we were doing, and how to stop us. As if someone were telling him exactly what to do to head us off at the pass."
"Does he still?" Lois asked. "I mean, he can't have all of Metropolis wired, can he?"
"I doubt it," Clark said. "It seemed to stop when the wedding took place -- as if he lost some sort of ability to see ahead. It was --" He broke off, as if he were searching for a descriptive word. "Uncanny," he said, finally.
Lois Luthor bit her lip. "I hope he doesn't realize who I gave the evidence to," she said. "I'd hate to get him killed."
"If Luthor knew what was going on now," Clark said, "he would never have let you get your hands on it in the first place. We don't know how he did it, but it seemed as if, for a short time there, he could see the future and move to change it."
"Maybe he did," Lois said.
"I have this really weird idea," she said. "I wonder if all this stuff about me being here, and this George Temper guy, and the things that happened --" She fell silent, thinking.
Her counterpart was looking at her. "What?"
"Well, you're going to think I'm crazy, but -- see what you think of this," she said. "Somehow I got here from my world. That means somebody can move through the different timelines, right?"
"I'd say that makes sense," Clark said, slowly.
"Well, suppose that means he can somehow manipulate time, at least partly. What if it means he knows the future -- or some of it, anyway."
"I'd say it's a bit of a stretch," Clark said, "but I wouldn't have believed what happened to you, either, if I hadn't seen it."
"Say for the sake of argument," Lois Luthor interrupted, "that he's got some way to travel through time -- either crossways like happened to you, or back and forth. It's not that much of an impossibility, considering what's already happened."
"Okay," Lois said. "So, maybe that somebody is George Temper. I never saw him before the Halloween party, and my Clark and the others never ran into him in our world in relation to Lex -- and his name never turned up in the investigations of LexCorps later, either. As far as I know, Lex never knew a George Temper. So maybe he knew what you and Perry and the others were doing."
"It's possible," her counterpart interrupted. "He might know what was going to happen if he's seen it in other places, too. We don't know our two timelines are the only ones. Maybe there are some others like Lois's that are ahead or behind where we are -- where time moves faster or slower. How do we know how it works?" She caught Clark gaping at her and added, "Okay, so it's a little crazy. I saw the idea in a science fiction novel."
"You read science fiction?" Clark asked, diverted.
"I was into it in my teens," she said. "Anyway, maybe he somehow knew what was going to happen." She was looking at Lois with an astonished expression. "You could be right."
"About what?" Clark demanded.
"Well, if he knew -- somehow -- what was going to happen, then he could let Lex know so he could stop you," Lois Luthor said.
"But," Lois broke in, "after he changed the way it happened enough -- such as when Lex stopped you from getting the evidence to arrest him, and the wedding went through -- and Lex didn't commit suicide -- things would have changed enough that he couldn't predict it anymore. Things must have gone off in different ways."
"But why would he bring you in?" Clark asked. "If things were going his way?"
Lois shrugged. "I don't know. That email I got sounded as if he was enjoying watching me squirm. Maybe he just did it for the practical joke value. Or he could have something else in mind that we don't know about. This is just a theory, remember."
"Yeah." Clark was frowning as he ran over the idea in his mind. "The scary thing is, it makes a kind of weird sense -- at least it does with you being here from another timeline. Somebody is messing with our lives, that's for sure, and it isn't just Luthor."
"That's a very good theory," a voice said.
All three of them looked around. Standing at the entrance to the short hallway that led to Mortie's bedroom and bathroom, was George Temper, and in his hand was a device that none of them had ever seen before, but that looked vaguely similar to a handgun. And the muzzle was aimed directly at Lois Luthor.
Clark made a sudden motion and the man's trigger finger jerked. Lois Luthor gasped.
"Don't do it, big boy," Temper said. "If you're a split-second too late, this will burn her to a crisp."
Clark looked quickly at her. "Are you all right?"
She nodded. "I think so -- little tingles, like an electric shock --"
Temper smiled genially. "That was the low dose. Push your luck and make me pull the trigger all the way back, it's bye-bye baby."
"Who are you?" Lois demanded.
He chuckled genially. "I thought you'd figured it all out, Lois. But then, I guess you can't really know all the details." He casually touched a button on the watch he wore and the dial glowed green. Clark staggered back as if he'd been shot.
Lois found herself staring in shock as Clark landed on the floor. Lois Luthor made a move toward him and gasped again as Temper's forefinger twitched on the trigger. "Uh-uh, baby." He appeared to adjust a knob on his watch and the green glow lessened slightly. "There, that's better. Can't have you dying, yet." He grinned happily at the three of them. "I have to give you credit, Lois. You're just as bright and just as irritating as the Lois in every other universe I've visited -- and there's been a lot of them. You figured out the basics." He moved forward and seated himself in one of the armchairs, never removing the aim of his weapon from Lois Luthor. "I'm from the future, all right -- but not from this universe. Not even from yours."
"Where are you from?" Lois asked. She was curious, but the question was only an attempt to keep the man talking. He seemed to be enjoying the situation, so maybe she could distract him, stall, anything to keep him from harming Clark.
From harming Superman.
That fact was startling, but maybe the impact of the revelation wasn't as shocking as it might have been if the situation had been less serious. She could think about it if they managed to get out of this mess alive. Temper was grinning mockingly at her. "I'm from a third universe," he said. "One that's so far ahead of this one that you might as well be a bunch of Neanderthals compared to me and the science I have at my fingertips. I came back in time to the twentieth century of my world, mostly looking for fun, but the authorities there didn't think a lot of my ideas. We've had time travel since our nineteenth century, you know." He seemed to preen slightly as he informed them of the fact.
"If it's so great there, why are you here?" Lois Luthor demanded.
"My world in the twenty-second century is boring enough to drive you crazy. The only way to avoid insanity is to numb the brain to the point where you can't think," Temper said. "No crime, no war -- they got rid of the pirates that made space-travel exciting -- we've even made peace with the Grincii --"
"The who?" Lois asked.
"Ah, it doesn't matter. An alien race that was our main competition for trade with the New Kryptonian Empire. Nothing but peace and good will." Temper made a face and nudged Clark with the toe of his shoe. Clark tried to push himself up on his arms, and Temper turned the nudge into a shove that sent Clark onto his back. "Lie still Kal, old boy. If you don't, I'll have to kill you too soon."
"Too soon for what?" Lois demanded.
"Lex will be here after while," Temper said cheerfully. "By that time, old Supes won't have any powers left, and a bullet will finish him off. It's gonna be fun seeing Lexy-boy's face when he realizes who Clark here is. I want to see that." He grinned again. "Now where was I? Oh, yes. Anyway, the authorities of my twentieth century just didn't see things my way, so I decided to go looking for a world where I could -- shall we say, 'mold' it into my ideal future. I took one of the Time Corps crosstime vehicles and went hunting. I found a couple of timelines where the Luthor-Lane fiasco was already past, but still recent, and found out what happened. Then I found this world and its neighboring one."
He raised his eyebrows at Lois. "Yours. The wedding was an important point in most universes' histories, you know. Even mine. It set the stage for the famous Lane-Kent romance, and the peaceful future of humanity, so I decided to change things a little." He grinned mockingly. "The future of this world will be a lot more exciting. Much more to my taste. Best of all, there will be no time travelers except me. The whole timeline will be my playground."
Lois looked desperately at Lois Luthor. Her counterpart was glaring at Temper. "You're a monster!" she spat. "As bad as Lex!"
"You wound me, my dear," Temper said. "I'm much worse than Lexy-boy. He's nothing but a third-rater."
"But why bring me here?" Lois asked. Anything to keep him talking, to give herself time to think. And she really did want to know.
"Good question," Temper said. "I've learned to really dislike Lois Lane, you know that? Any Lois Lane. The future of any universe where you and Kent here exist depends on both of you. Break up the pairing, get rid of one of you -- phhht!" He snapped his fingers. "Whole new future! Bringing you here breaks up your universe's future, and getting rid of ol' Clark ends any chance of this one making a comeback. I'll have two universes with endless possibilities to play in, and no one to stop me. It's gonna be great!" He caught the slight movement Lois Luthor made toward him. "Don't move, my dear. I'd hate to have to kill you. It'll be too much fun watching you suffer when your loving hubby kills Clark here. I want to watch the fun."
Slight motion at the corner of her eye caught her attention. Careful not to alert Temper, Lois raised a hand to dash away an imaginary tear and glanced through her fingers at the spot where she had seen the movement.
It was as if an insubstantial curtain in space was rolling aside, and through the opening stepped Mortie Engelman. In his hand was a weapon identical to the one Temper held. He didn't hesitate. As he emerged fully into the solidity of the dingy hallway, he raised the weapon and fired. There was a low hum and Temper was engulfed in electric white light; he arched backwards, as every muscle in his body contracted; then he went limp and slid bonelessly to the carpet. Mortie stepped forward and removed the watch from his wrist. The green glow died.
"Clark!" Lois Luthor was instantly on her knees beside him, and Lois was right behind her. Clark shuddered slightly and took a deep breath.
"Thanks," he said to Mortie.
"You're welcome," Mortie said, mildly. He knelt next to Temper and rolled him onto his face. Quickly and efficiently, he went through the man's clothing, removed several items and produced a blob of white metal that squirmed, twisted, and became a solid disk of metal completely encompassing Temper's wrists. "That should keep this gentleman out of trouble until we can take him home."
Clark sat up. Both Loises helped him to his feet, and into the nearest armchair.
"Are you all right?" Lois Luthor demanded.
Clark cleared his throat. "More or less," he said. "Lois --"
The Lois of his universe raised an eyebrow at him but she didn't comment. Instead, she said, "I guess Mortie isn't the mild-mannered newsman, either."
Mortie got to his feet and grinned. "No, not this incarnation of him. I'm a time cop."
"From Temper's universe," Lois guessed.
"Where's our Mortie, then?" Lois Luthor asked.
"In my home universe," Mortie said. "He'll be exchanged for me in a bit, and he'll have memories of helping Henderson with Luthor -- and none of this business at all."
"And us?" she asked.
"Well, this is your timeline. We'll leave you alone to repair it," Mortie said. "The Time Corps exists to control people like this fellow. Temper will be taken back to our timeline and tried for crimes against your two universes. We'll see how well he likes his prison."
"What will happen to him?" Lois Luthor asked.
"There are a number of timelines where no intelligent life ever developed," Mortie said. "We utilize one of them as a prison for people from our timeline that can't live within our laws. He'll be free to do as he chooses, but he will never leave."
Lois glanced at the unconscious criminal. "I guess that should be enough excitement even for him," she remarked. "I can't say I'm sorry for him."
"Me, either," Lois Luthor said.
"What about me?" Lois asked. "Is there any way for me to get home?"
Mortie smiled. "Since you definitely don't belong here, I think I can arrange that. By the way," he added, "if you'll turn on the television, you may hear some interesting news."
"Why don't you just tell us," Clark suggested. He was resting his head against one hand and definitely had looked better, Lois thought.
Mortie nodded. "Bobby Bigmouth," he said, "was also temporarily replaced by his counterpart from our world. He delivered your evidence to Bill Henderson." He smiled dryly. "Bill and I went through the police academy together in my Metropolis, and this one is as good a cop as the one I know. He found a judge who isn't on Luthor's payroll, got a warrant and served it on your husband an hour ago, Mrs. Luthor."
"You mean he's in jail?"
Mortie shook his head. "There's more to the story. Luthor tried to get away from him. The elevator cable to the private elevator in his office failed, and the safety didn't engage. They suspect sabotage, probably by his chief lieutenant, Nigel St. John."
"You mean --"
"The car fell a hundred and two stories," Mortie said. "The authorities are trying to identify him by what's left of his dental work." He turned to Clark. "Mr. Kent, you're a Kryptonian, and we learned long ago that even without powers, your race is immune to the memory devices of our timeline. I trust that we can rely on you and Lois not to spread the information about the multiple universes? It wouldn't be helpful to any of us."
"Not to mention, people would think we were insane," Clark said. "You can trust us to keep the secret."
"Excellent." Mortie turned to Lois. "If you're ready, Ms. Lane, your world is waiting for you."
"Lois, wake up."
Someone was holding her hand, and the traces of a headache behind her eyes made her wince. The memories were retreating as she grasped for them. Memories? Or just an extraordinarily vivid dream? Lois opened her eyes, lifting her free hand to shield her eyes from the much-too-bright sunlight that streamed in the hospital window.
Clark Kent was seated in a chair next to her bed, and one of his hands was grasping hers.
"Clark?" she murmured.
"Lois! Thank heavens you're awake!" His hand tightened on hers. "How do you feel?"
"My head hurts," she murmured.
"I'm not surprised," Clark said. "You left the Halloween ball, and a few minutes later Superman found you unconscious in the parking lot. It looked like someone hit you." He released her hand and went to the door. "Nurse! She's awake!"
Lois tried to push herself up, discovering various devices attached to her underneath the hospital gown. "The Halloween ball? What day is this?"
Clark turned back to her, a frown on his face. "It's November first."
He opened his mouth to answer, but at that moment the nurse that he had called entered the room.
"Is everything all right, Mr. Kent?" The nurse's eyes widened. "Ms. Lane? How do you feel?"
November first, she thought. The day after the Metro Halloween Ball. That was all it had been, after all. Just a dream.
"Wow," Clark said. He finished the tea and set the cup on Lois's coffee table. "Why don't I have dreams like that?"
"It must have been the hors d'oeuvres at the party," Lois said. She glanced around her apartment. It looked just the same as it had when she had left it to attend the party the evening before.
The doctor hadn't wanted her to check out of the hospital this afternoon, but she had cajoled and argued, and finally won his grudging consent -- as long as she promised to rest for the remainder of the day, and as long as her partner agreed to keep her company for another twelve hours. The twelve hours were up, and she was looking forward to a full night's sleep in her own bed.
"I can't think of anything else that would have made me dream anything so wild," she said. "The Clark of the other world turned out to be Superman, and Lois Luthor was going to use Luthor's money to restore the Planet. Most of my dreams don't end that neatly, but can you imagine that? Not to mention that the future of our timeline depended on you and me." She laughed a little at the idea.
"Yeah," Clark said. "Pretty incredible, all right. You must have a very interesting subconscious mind." He glanced at his watch. "Well, it's pretty late. Perry gave you tomorrow off, so you get to sleep in, but I have to go to work in the morning. I'd better be going. Are you going to be all right?"
"Yes," she said. She regarded him with a little smile. "Thanks, Clark."
"For being such a good friend -- even in my dream."
"Lois --" He reached out to lay a hand on hers. "I'll always be your friend." He smiled at her in return. "I don't have any control over your dreams, but I hope I stay your friend in them, too."
A few minutes later he had gone, and Lois went into her bathroom to brush her teeth.
It hadn't happened, she thought again, running water into the sink. It was funny how the memories of the dream stuck with her. They were growing less vivid as time went by, but that was all the whole thing could have been: nothing but a very real dream. Clark wasn't really Superman, Mortie's counterpart in an alternate universe wasn't really a time cop, and there wasn't really an evil cross-time traveler named Temper who had plotted to destroy the other world and her own. But Clark didn't have to be Superman to be the best friend she had ever had. That part at least wasn't a dream.
Her ankle twinged slightly, and she grimaced. She must have scratched it last night in the parking lot, she thought. Glancing down at the bandage that covered the cut, a little tingle ran over her scalp.
She rinsed out her toothbrush and went back to the bedroom to get into bed.