Home III: Memories Part 2
By Nan Smith

When Lori woke the next morning, the first thing she saw was Clark.
His blankets were kicked off and he was sleeping on his stomach, his
face buried in the pillow. She sat up slowly and simply stared at
her partner. In his sleeping shorts, Clark looked...wow. He was
certainly worth looking at, that was for sure. Sure, she'd seen him
in his skin-tight spandex suit, but this way...Lori swallowed and
tore her eyes away.

Muted light came through the window glass, which had cleared when she
sat up, and Lori could see that the storm still raged. Raindrops
beat against it like bullets, and she could see the palm trees
tossing wildly in the wind. Well, it looked as if that tour of the
city after today's presentations was out.

The time readout on her wrist talker informed her it was just before
seven. The first presentations started in an hour. Well, there was
no reason Clark couldn't sleep while she showered. She selected a
few items from her suitcase and, with a last look at Clark, she
hurried into the bathroom.

By the time she came out, fully dressed and combing her hair, he was
awake. He looked at her guiltily. "Sorry I overslept."

"That's okay. We've got about forty-five minutes until the conference starts."

"I better hurry." He ran a hand over the stubble on his chin. "Good
thing I thought to bring something along to shave with. I usually
don't have to use them."

"How *do* you shave?" she asked, curiously.

"Heat vision," Clark said. "I bounce it off a mirror. I better get
moving. This is going to take longer than usual."

"There's no sign of your powers?" Lori asked.

"No, not yet."

Other than a minor mishap with the sonic razor, it took Clark twenty
minutes to shower, shave and dress. They hurried down to breakfast
with only a short time to spare. Lori settled on a glass of milk and
a piece of fruit for a quick meal, and Clark chose a donut and juice.
Lori briefly envied him his Kryptonian metabolism. In a few years,
she was sure, her ability to eat whatever she wanted would
undoubtedly disappear and she would have to fight to maintain her
figure. Oh well...

She wondered if a guy as obviously attractive as Clark would be
interested in her if she got fat and developed white hair and
wrinkles. She rather thought he would, judging by what he had said
about his wife yesterday. Her appearance had apparently worried her
before her death, but it hadn't made a difference to Clark. She
wondered idly if the superheroes ever developed wrinkles or got fat.

None of the ones she'd seen in person or on the vidscreen ever seemed
to. Rhonda had looked about Clark's age, although she knew Ultra
Woman had been around several years longer than Superman.

She looked suddenly at Clark as he downed his donut and juice. Just
how old was Clark, anyway? She'd looked up his journalistic history
a while back; he had a formidable resume, and apparently the respect
of the journalistic community, but she hadn't been able to find out
much else. It was as if his personal history had been deliberately
obscured.

Just how fast did the supermen age? Was it as the same rate as
regular humans? The question had never occurred to her before, but
now that she'd thought of it, it seemed a reasonable question to ask.
They were, after all, only part human.

Clark glanced at his wrist talker. "Oops, we better hurry. The
first presentation starts in about five minutes."

Lori got up quickly, grabbing for her bag. "Let's go, then."

They were nearly the last people to arrive at the hotel's Dolphin
Room. They took seats in the rear of the room, and Lori caught sight
of Margot Ryerson eyeing her speculatively. She smiled politely, but
didn't approach.

"What's the matter?" Clark asked. Honestly, the man seemed to read minds!

"Is telepathy a Kryptonian talent?" she asked, softly. "You always
seem to know!"

"Only for some of us," Clark said, unexpectedly. "And only with
other Kryptonians."

"Really?"

"Yes. And," he amended, "to a degree, with people who are very close
to one of us. Why do you ask?"

"You always know. Just don't leave me alone with Margot, please!"

"Why?"

Lori could feel her face turning pink at the memory. "She thinks you
and I are--well, she thinks I convinced you to share my room
because--and then, when the lights came back on last night, you had
your arms around me, and Margot--"

"Oh," Clark said. He grinned and ostentatiously lifted her hand to
kiss the back of it, well within view of Margot. "We might as well
give her something to think about. We'll never convince her that
nothing's happened. It'll probably be good for both our reputations."

She couldn't help laughing, in spite of her embarrassment. It was
true; the thought of being in a position to do exactly what Margot
had been implying last night was starting to appear more
attractive--as long as it was with Clark. For Lori, unlike Marcy
with her numerous boyfriends and her string of husbands, sex just for
the sake of sex wasn't attractive. But with Clark, now...

Remembering his seemingly uncanny ability to know what she was
thinking, she determinedly turned her attention to the man now
walking across the podium. It was starting to look as if trusting
Clark to behave had never been the problem. Making her own libido
behave, on the other hand--now that was another thing altogether.

**********

The presentations went on for the next three hours. Clark's first
presentation was scheduled for the afternoon session and the other
for tomorrow morning. Lori was careful to record the speeches,
though from what she heard, her first guess had been right; a lot of
the presentations were just blather, but here and there was something
worth preserving. When they broke for lunch, she dropped the
recorder back in her purse, and the little rip in the seam caught her
eye and she reminded herself to repair it as soon as possible. The
hotel room had an emergency repair kit included with its other
supplies. It would do until she got back to Metropolis.

"Thinking about anything in particular?" Clark asked. They had
strolled out into the hotel lobby with the rest of the crowd. Lori
glanced at the big windows beside the entrance, from which they could
see the rain pounding down on the pavement outside.

"Not really," she said. "It's a shame this storm had to hit just
now. It's really the first time I've been anywhere but the
states--except for two hours in Baja California right after high
school."

Clark smiled. "I promise that I'll bring you back next week if you
like. And maybe we can have dinner in Paris or somewhere else you
choose. Will that help?"

"That would be wonderful," she said.

"And after the presentations are over for the afternoon we're *going*
to talk if I have to hide us both in the cellar to keep from being
interrupted. It's past time that you knew."

"Knew what?"

"All the dark secrets of my past," Clark said. "You have the right
to know the whole truth."

"You make it sound disreputable," she said lightly.

"Well, not disreputable exactly, but not your ordinary history, either."

"Nothing about you is ordinary, Clark...ohmigod, here comes Margot."

Clark put a hand on her arm. "Steady there...hi, Margot."

"Hello, Clark." Margot Ryerson's dark eyes were sparkling with
curiosity. "So, how are you this morning, Lori?"

"Much better," Lori said. The expression on the other woman's face,
and the knowledge of what she obviously thought she knew, was the
final straw. The little devil that controlled her sense of humor
prodded her. Marcy could have warned Clark about this aspect of her
younger sister's personality, but Marcy wasn't there. Lori threw
caution to the winds. "I had a good night's sleep," she added. "We
were both...tired."

She sensed rather than saw Clark's dark eyebrows fly up, but she
didn't look at him; instead she moved a little closer to him and felt
his arm tighten slightly. "Clark was really wonderful about helping
me feel better after all the things that happened last evening," she
continued recklessly. Clark gave an odd-sounding cough. She stepped
on his toe. "So," she continued, "did you enjoy Harold Bertie's
speech?"

"It was pretty good, actually," Margot said. The curiosity on her
face had sharpened, and Lori fought the desire to giggle. "Were you
going to have lunch?"

"We were just on our way there, now," Clark said. "Lori wanted to
see the town after lunch, but it looks like that's out of the
question for the present."

"Only if you want to come back looking like a drowned rat," Margot
said, distastefully. "Why don't we all go in together? I wanted to
ask you about what happened when the lights went out last night. The
Hotel Security guys weren't talking."

"I think they're waiting until they have some more information," Clark said.

"Maybe," Margot grumped, "but I'm a reporter. What *did* happen last night?"

"I'm not really sure, anymore," Lori said, untruthfully. "Besides, I
don't want to think about it right now."

"Well," Margot said, "maybe we could talk about it later when we can
get together, just us girls. What do you think?"

'Not in this lifetime,' Lori thought. "Maybe."

"Okay." Margot seemed to accept the answer, but Lori wasn't fooled.
"By the way, I was wondering if you'd seen Pete Swanson this morning.
He was supposed to be here yesterday, but I haven't seen him yet."

"No, I haven't," Clark said. "Maybe one of us should go check on
him. He might have gotten sick or something. What room is he in?"

"I don't know. I guess we could ask at the desk."

**********

"He doesn't answer his page," Clark said, some time later. "Maybe we
better go check and see if he's all right."

"He could just be sleeping off a hangover," Margot said. "He hates
flying," she added, for Lori's benefit. "He always ends up barely
able to stagger off a shuttle."

"Still, we better check." Clark turned and spoke to the desk clerk
in rapid fire Spanish.

Margot shook her head. "Wish I could handle foreign languages like
Clark," she said, enviously. "I've never once seen him at a loss in
all the time I've known him."

"Clark's very good at languages," Lori said.

"I'll say." Margot eyed Lori curiously. "Is he as good at other things?"

"Clark's good at a lot of things," Lori said noncommittally, and
firmly stifled the urge to laugh at the flicker of annoyance that
crossed Margot's face.

The desk clerk was speaking rapidly, first to Clark and then to a
bellboy. A moment later, the bellboy headed for the elevator with
the three of them trailing along.

Pete Swanson's room was on the second floor, but instead of turning
into the hall where Clark and Lori's room was located, the bellboy
turned left toward another hallway. Halfway down it they stopped,
where a "Do Not Disturb" sign hung prominently on the knob. Clark
and Lori looked at each other.

"I hope we're not disturbing him too much," Clark murmured.

"Me, too, but no one's seen him since he got here," Margot said. "If
there's something wrong and we don't find out..." She let the
sentence trail off.

"Senor Swanson?" the hotel employee called.

No one answered. The young man frowned and called out again.

Still no one answered. This time the bellboy knocked sharply

No sound from beyond the door. Another knock.

Silence. Without further ado, the man produced an electronic key and
unlocked the door.

"Senor Swanson?" he inquired, opening the panel a crack.

No answer. The bellboy cautiously opened the door wider.

The bed was visible from the door. It was neatly made and a pair of
suitcases sat next to the bathroom door. Other than that, there was
no sign of occupancy. Still, the suitcases were monogrammed with an
"S" and when they checked the bathroom, Lori could see a sonic razor
sitting on the counter. Pete Swanson had been here, it seemed, and
wasn't here now.

"I guess he must be all right," Margot said, sounding relieved. "I
guess I just missed him. He'll probably show up after awhile."

"Just one of those things," Clark said. He turned to thank the
bellboy, who nodded and spoke back in the same language.

Lori stood in the center of the room, looking around. She didn't
know what it was about the situation, but something struck her as
wrong about this room. The neat suitcases sitting there--a piece of
cloth was sticking out of one as if it had been closed and left that
way. That wasn't an unusual thing. Many people left their clothing
in a suitcase upon arrival at a hotel. Only, that looked like the
material for the jacket or slacks of a dress suit. Wouldn't a man
who expected to wear such a suit to a formal dinner at least hang it
up to avoid wrinkles?

Lori crossed the room almost on automatic pilot and knelt, fingering
the material. "Clark..."

"What's the matter?"

"Why would a man cram a dress suit into a suitcase like this?"

"What? Oh." Clark also crossed the room, Margot on his heels,
followed quickly by the bellboy. He also knelt to examine the
material, then, without a word he unsnapped the catches of the case.

The suit had been rolled up carelessly and thrust into the suitcase.
Lori stared at it. "Nobody packs formal clothes like that."

"It looks like it was yanked off a hangar and just shoved in here,"
Margot said.

Lori stood up, a horrifying idea suddenly crystallizing in her mind.

The hotel closets weren't large; they barely had room for more than
four or five hanging items at a time, with no room to spare.
Considering the hotel room's need for space, it was reasonable. But
what if the reason the suit had been removed from the closet was to
make room for something else?

Lori turned and hurried to the tiny closet. With a quick move,
before she could change her mind, she yanked the door open.

She was expecting something, what she wasn't sure, but because of it,
she was able to confine the scream that tried to rise in her throat
to an odd-sounding yelp.

Crammed tightly into the tiny closet was a short, balding man who
looked horribly familiar to Lori. He was the man she had seen in the
restaurant the night before, and he was quite dead.

**********

Clark knelt beside the body of the man he had met briefly in the bar
last night, careful not to touch anything. A shadow fell across him,
and he glanced over his shoulder.

"You're blocking my light, Margot. Could you move back a little, please?"

Reluctantly the woman edged back a few inches. Clark examined the
dead man visually. "It looks as if he was stabbed."

"No kidding," Margot said, sarcastically. "I can see that for myself."

Behind them, Clark could hear the bellboy at the vidphone, speaking
almost hysterically to someone. Lori simply stood back, watching
without a word, her face a peculiar shade of light green. His
partner might be an investigative journalist, he reminded himself,
but she was new to the business. She had probably never seen a dead
man anywhere but on the vidscreen before, certainly not one who had
been brutally murdered. He had seen far too many, but the fact
didn't make it any easier. He got to his feet again, still careful
not to contaminate the crime scene by touching anything, and moved
over to her. "Lori, I think you better sit down."

She didn't object when he pushed her gently into one of the room's
armchairs. "Are you okay?"

She took a couple of deep breaths and nodded. "Yeah. I'm okay."

"Good. Just stay where you are for a few minutes, all right?"

She nodded jerkily. "Is he...your friend?"

"No," Clark said. "His name is Tom Myers, but that's all I know. I
met him for about two minutes at the bar last night."

"I saw...I saw him, too," Lori whispered. "He was just standing near
our table. Then he went down the hall toward the restrooms and I
didn't see him after that. But why should he be in the closet of
your friend's room?"

"That," Clark said, "is the million dollar question."

"Then where is your friend?"

"That's another one." Clark sat down on the arm of the chair and
reached out to take her hand. "We'll find out, Lori." He glanced at
Margot and the bellboy. "Hotel Security should be here in a minute.
How did you guess about the closet?"

She gulped, looking distinctly green. "I didn't. It just seemed
like there had to be a reason the suit wasn't hanging in the closet,
so I looked to see why."

"Good old common sense," Margot said. "You've got a smart partner, Clark."

"I know." He squeezed Lori's hand reassuringly. "I've got an
incredible partner."

Margot's eyes narrowed slightly and then widened. "Well, well," she
said, after a short pause. "That explains a lot." She looked
cryptically at Lori. "Now I'm really envious, sweetie."

"Not now, Margot," Clark said. "We've got bigger problems here."

"That's for sure. Where are those Security people?"

"I'm sure they'll be here in a minute. I better call the front desk
and have them tell whoever's handling the scheduling that I may be
late for my presentation."

**********

The wind whipping through the streets of town was too violent even
for the police to make it to the hotel. The weather services
reported that the storm was just sitting off the coast, spinning. It
had been upgraded to a category one hurricane, and Alta Mesa was
catching the edges of it.

Clark and Lori were the last of the four to leave the Security
Office, two hours later. They had spoken to a Homicide detective
over the vidphone, and he had interviewed all four of them, one at a
time. The interview--except for Clark's and the bellboy's, of
course--had been hampered by the official's limited command of
English, and Lori's almost nonexistent Spanish. Margot spoke the
language haltingly, but they had waited until an interpreter, a young
policewoman, had been summoned, as the man had wanted to hear Lori's
version of events without Clark acting as intermediary. Since all
four persons who had found Tom Myers' body told essentially the same
story, it wasn't very helpful to the detective who had apparently
been put in charge of the case.

"Did you overhear anything about what they plan to do until the
police can get here?" Lori asked.

"Yeah. My hearing seems to be improving. My powers may be starting
to come back," he said. "They're going to start searching for Pete
Swanson. He checked into the hotel--I saw his signature and photo on
the hotel register page that the desk clerk called up before we went
up to his room. It was his, all right, so he got here. What
happened to him after that is another question, but if he's here
anywhere, he can't leave even if he wants to. Even the police are
stuck while it's blowing so hard."

"Do you think he would have killed Myers?"

Clark hesitated a long moment, obviously considering the question
seriously. "Unless he's changed a lot from the man I used to know,
no, he wouldn't. The Pete Swanson I knew wouldn't hurt a fly."

"Could something have happened to him, too?"

Clark smiled wryly. "Who's the telepath here?" he asked. "I've been
thinking the same thing." He glanced at his wrist talker. "I've got
that presentation in a few minutes. Look, if we've still got
communications we can try hooking into the Queenstown Courier. His
picture is always next to his byline. I'd like to do a little
checking around, too. Maybe someone saw him last night, even if
Margot didn't. And while we're at it, maybe we can dig up some
background on Mr. Myers. When we talked, he told me he was from New
York and that he worked for Mechtel Corporation."

"Queenstown?" Lori asked curiously. "Where's that?"

"New Zealand. Pete's a second generation New Zealander. Awfully
nice guy; he just has this problem with flying in shuttles. I
couldn't exactly blame him."

"Oh," Lori said. "All right; it's a good idea. I'd rather be doing
something than just sitting around waiting. If they don't figure out
who killed him before long, we could be stuck here."

"Well, they haven't charged us with anything," Clark said. "Unless
they tell us we can't, there's no reason we can't go home on Monday.
Still, I'd rather be doing something, too." He paused for a moment,
thinking. "When you saw Myers last night, what was he doing? You
said before that he was just standing near our table."

"Yeah. He seemed to be watching the entrance to the restaurant. I
looked, too, but I didn't see anything unusual." She frowned,
obviously making an effort of memory. "Only earlier, something did
happen."

"What?"

"Not much, actually. It just struck me as a little odd. You and I
were sitting at the table, reading our menus, and I happened to look
at the doorway. There was somebody standing there. I couldn't see
him very well, but for some reason, he looked familiar just for a
second. It was the strangest feeling of déjà vu."

"Did you see his face?"

"No. He was standing by that big, leafy tropical plant next to the
door. I just had the funniest feeling that he was watching me.
Imagination, I guess."

"Not necessarily," Clark said. "Remember what happened to you a few
hours later. It could be that whoever it was *was* following you."

Lori shivered. "Do you really think he could have been?"

"Maybe. Or it could be connected to this murder. Myers was in the
bar when I talked to him, but he could have gone in to dinner before
you saw him."

"Do you suppose there could be a connection?" Lori asked. "Maybe
we've got a psychopathic killer on our hands."

"Mmmm..." Clark didn't sound convinced. "Maybe. I guess it's
possible, but it's too soon to be making guesses. Let's do some
digging and see what we turn up. I have the feeling that there's a
lot more to this than meets the eye."

"So do I," Lori said.

"And don't go off alone into deserted areas, okay? After what
happened last night, I don't want to risk something happening to you.
If it wasn't related to this business, good, but I don't like
coincidences."

**********

Clark's presentation was received with more enthusiasm than many of
the previous ones had been, at least in Lori's opinion. It had
actually been interesting and occasionally humorous. In the meantime,
with her portable computer braced firmly in her lap, she connected
with the Queenstown Courier, searched out a photo of Pete Swanson and
downloaded it into her own computer. Finished with that, she
contacted Personnel for Mechtel Corporation, looking for Thomas Myers
in New York City.

When Clark concluded his presentation accompanied by modest applause
he left the podium and hurried straight to Lori where she sat, by
special request, in the front row.

She looked up from her computer. "Nice job, partner."

"Thanks. Did you come up with anything?"

Lori glanced around. "Let's get out of here and I'll tell you."

They made their way out of the Dolphin Room, and Clark glanced at his
wrist talker. "I just thought of something. The only thing I've had
to eat today was a donut and a glass of juice. It's past three. Why
don't we grab a light snack of something while we talk?"

Lori's stomach grumbled at the thought of food. When they'd found
the body of Tom Myers it had effectively killed any appetite she'd
had at the time, but that was now over four hours ago. "I could use
a sandwich or something," she admitted.

"Okay. Let's go."

At Clark's request, they were soon seated in a booth in the far
corner of the restaurant's coffee shop, and a young woman took their
orders for light afternoon snacks. While they waited, Lori set her
computer on the table, pulled up the picture of Pete Swanson and
turned the screen so Clark could see it.

"Luckily for us, the storm hasn't affected our communications yet,"
she said. "Will this do?"

"Can you enlarge it a bit?" Clark asked.

Lori turned the computer back and worked on the picture for a moment,
then turned it back. "This is the best I can manage. I'll lose
resolution if I make it any bigger."

Clark examined it. "I think it's adequate. You didn't have the best
picture to start with. We'll need hard copies."

"No problem." Within a few moments, she had produced them.

Clark took his and looked it over critically. "Nice job. Any luck
on Thomas Myers?"

"No," Lori said, "but what I *didn't* find is almost as instructive.
There's a Thomas Meyerson who works at Mechtel in New York, but no
Thomas Myers. I tried every possible spelling of his name.
Meyerson's picture doesn't look anything like our victim, either; I
checked. So, who is Myers, and where did he really come from?"

"Good question," Clark said, thoughtfully.

"I contacted Research at the Planet and sent them the information we
had. They're going to make some inquiries. Myers had to have gotten
here via shuttle. Where and when did he book a flight, for instance,
and who paid for it? If he used a credit account, maybe we can trace
him from that."

"Smart," Clark said. He glanced around. "Uh-oh. Here comes Margot.
Watch it. She's a barracuda when she's on the trail of a story."

Lori turned off her computer and set it on the floor beside her. "Hi, Margot."

"Hi." Margot glanced curiously at the computer, then at the pictures
of Pete Swanson. "Find anything?"

"No," Clark said. "We thought we'd ask around and see if any hotel
employees or other guests might have seen Pete since last night."

"Not a bad idea," Margot said. "He checked in about half an hour
before I did, according to the desk clerk, and I got here a little
while before you. We'd planned to get together last evening," she
added. "He and I have been working on a story about an international
ring of jewel thieves that's been operating for about ten years or
so--at least that's how long Interpol's been after them." She picked
up a chair from a nearby table, sat casually down across from Clark
and grinned suddenly at his stunned expression. "I wouldn't be
telling you this, Kent, but I know you don't steal stories, and I'm
worried about Pete.

"Anyway, recently some pieces that were stolen in California turned
up in New Zealand, and a local dealer was arrested in connection with
the ring. It was the first big break in the case, and that's where
Pete got involved. I was on the California end, and Pete was
following it from his, and we were going to get together here and
compare some of our notes. He never called me after I got here, and
he never answered his phone. At first, I figured he was just drunk,
but this morning I started to get worried."

"I think I remember reading about the jewel thing," Lori said. "We
were in the middle of the Mayflower investigation at the time,
though."

Clark nodded agreement. "Lori, can you whip me up another picture of
Pete?" He handed his picture to Margot. "Here, you take this one,
and we'll ask around as soon as we've had something to eat."

**********

"Sure," the bartender said, examining the paper Lori had handed him.
"I remember this guy."

The bartender was a tall, broad, muscular man with the unlikely name
of Angelo MacGregor. Not only that, but he didn't look in the least
Scottish. His face shape, brown skin and slightly Asian eyes
suggested ancestry possibly from the Philippines or that same general
corner of the world. He not only spoke perfect English; he spoke it
with an unmistakable Brooklyn accent.

"What time was that?" Lori asked.

"He was here about five-thirty, with some other guy," MacGregor said.
"I didn't think he ought to be drinking, because he'd already had a
couple too many from what I could tell. He was staying here at the
hotel, though, and his friend said he was just going back to his
room, so nobody saw any real harm in it."

"What did the friend look like?" Lori asked.

MacGregor handed the paper back to her. "I didn't notice him in
particular, Ms. Lyons. He was a little skinny guy; that's all I
remember."

"Do you remember how he was dressed or anything?"

The man shook his head. "I'm afraid not. Just like everybody else,
or I would have noticed."

"Okay," Lori said. "Thanks. You've been a lot of help. I don't
suppose you noticed when they left or where they went?"

"They left just before happy hour started at six. They went out
toward the lobby, I think, and I didn't see them again after that,"
MacGregor said.

Lori folded the paper and stuck it into her purse. "I really
appreciate this, Angelo. If you remember anything else, Mr. Kent and
I will be around until Monday morning at least."

"Sure." MacGregor frowned. "I heard about the body you guys found
upstairs. That must have been bad."

"That's one way of putting it," Lori said, drily.

"Yeah. If I think of anything else, I'll be sure to let you know."

**********

"So, the only person who saw him after he checked into his room was
Angelo," Clark said. "Nobody saw him after that. I talked to the
housekeeping staff. Room Service delivered a meal to the room last
night, and Housekeeping made up the bed this morning. The maid said
the room looked okay at the time. Of course, she didn't check the
closet."

"Then he was there last evening, and slept in his bed," Lori said. "Unless..."

"Unless what?"

"Unless it was someone else."

"What?" Clark glanced at the lounge door at the smash of
breaking glass in the bar beyond. Happy hour was in full swing, and
someone had dropped a tray of drinks. "What do you mean 'someone
else'?"

"Well, he went out with this 'little skinny guy' and nobody ever saw
him again," Lori said. "I know this is a stretch, but what if the
'skinny guy' did something with him and took his place? What if he's
our killer?"

"Why would he take Pete's place?" Clark asked, trying to follow her logic.

"I don't know. Unless he needed to be here in the hotel for something."

"I'm not sure I understand," Clark said.

Lori shook her head. "Neither am I, but it makes a weird kind of
sense. Look, for the argument, let's say he needed to be here for
something, but there were no rooms, right?"

"Right."

"Okay, whatever this hypothetical reason is, it's life or death to
him. So, he gets a guy who's already tipsy into a bar and makes sure
he has another drink or two. Then he takes him outside, where the
storm is already starting to blow stuff around and hits him over the
head or stabs him or something, leaves him in an alley someplace and
takes his keys. How's that for a scenario?"

Clark looked at her in awe. At times like this Lori's reasoning was
exactly like Lois's had been. She made leaps of logic that seemed to
make no sense, and yet more often than not turned out to be right.
It had to be something that was part of her persona, that went with
her from life to life, one of the things that was part of *her*.
Okay then, it was time to trust her instinct.

"If that's what he did, he doesn't have the room to hide in anymore,"
Clark said. "And why would he kill Myers?"

Lori was looking thoughtful. "Clark, here's another really wild
idea. Myers didn't work for the people he said he worked for. What
if it was a cover story? What if he was after our killer and the guy
caught him by surprise?"

"You mean like a cop?"

"Maybe, or a detective, or something."

"But he hadn't killed anyone, yet."

"We don't know that, and even if he hadn't, maybe there was some
other reason a law officer was after him."

Clark thought it over and nodded. "Okay, assuming you're correct, we
need to try to confirm who Myers really was. See if Research has had
any luck with the shuttle companies that had flights into Alta Vista
on Friday. I already found out from the manager that he checked in
yesterday, so we can probably assume that he arrived here then, too."

Lori grinned. "On it, Boss. And, in case the company won't give it
out, let's ask Ronnie if she can get Oliver to get it for us. Do you
think he would?"

Clark couldn't help laughing. Lori had realized pretty fast, that
Rhonda could get Oliver to do just about anything she asked if she
had a good reason for it. She might not know that Police Inspector
Oliver Brent was Rhonda's oldest son, the only child who hadn't
inherited his mother's super powers, but she had figured out the rest.

"Good idea. They'll probably do things for an officer of the law
that they won't do for a news service. Let's get on it."

"Any sign of your powers coming back yet?" Lori asked.

He shook his head. "My hearing is starting to pick up, like I told
you before, but so far nothing else. It would be useful if they
would, too. We could really use them right now."

"That's for sure," Lori said.

"Oh, and while you're doing that, I'm going to check with the local
hospital to see if Pete might have been admitted as a John Doe. If
he was mugged by 'the little skinny guy'..." He paused and added,
quietly, "And, of course, I'll have to check the city morgue."

**********

Calls to both local hospitals and the morgue turned up no
unidentified men matching the picture that Clark sent them. Research
had been unable to worm the information out of the shuttle companies.
Clark contacted Rhonda Klein and explained the problem. She promised
to contact Oliver at once and reply to them as soon as possible.

Margot Ryerson entered the lounge while Clark was speaking on the
vidphone, his privacy screen on. She raised an eyebrow at Lori.
"What's going on?"

"Clark's talking to a friend of ours with some connections," Lori
said. "We're trying to get some information from the shuttle
companies about their passenger list." In spite of the fact that
Margot was Clark's friend--or at least a friendly rival, she
amended--her reporter's instinct told her not to give away too much
to anyone she didn't really know.

"Oh? Why?"

"Myers wasn't who he said he was," Lori said. "We're trying to
figure out where he really came from and who he really was."

"Any ideas?" Margot asked.

Lori shrugged. "Guesses, that's all." She rubbed her face. "I've
got a headache."

Clark shut off the phone. "Come on, Lori, let's go get some dinner.
It's been a rough day. I think it's time you had a chance to relax."

Margot followed them out and headed for the bar. Happy hour was
winding down, and people were drifting toward the restaurant. Clark
guided her through the bar without pausing, one hand lightly on the
small of her back, and Lori glanced up at him, mildly pleased at the
gesture. "A little time to relax sounds nice. I just hope it's not
followed by a bomb threat or something. We've had everything else,
so far."

Clark made a face. "Don't even think about it."

"Maybe I should knock on wood," she said. "I didn't really think of
conventions being like this."

"They usually aren't," Clark said. "I've been to a lot of them, and
there's never been a murder at one before that I can remember. We
did have an earthquake once, when I was in Istanbul, but it was only
a little one."

Lori found herself giggling. Clark's sense of humor was certainly
offbeat at times, but he knew how to take the tension out of a
situation, even if only for a little while.

A short time later, they were seated in the same corner of the
restaurant they had been in the night before, and Clark spoke quietly
in Spanish to the hostess. The woman nodded and departed.

Lori directed Clark's attention to the doorway. "The man last night
was standing next to that plant," she said. "You can see why I
couldn't see his face."

"Too many shadows," Clark agreed. "Low lighting may be romantic, but
it's definitely inconvenient for making out fine detail. Don't worry
about it for now, though. There isn't much we can do until Rhonda
gets back to us anyway. Do you know what you want to eat?"

A waiter appeared beside them, set two wineglasses on the table and
presented a bottle to Clark for his inspection. He examined it and
nodded. Lori watched in bemusement as Clark and the waiter engaged

in the time-honored ritual that Lori had seen only a few times in
fine restaurants before Clark solemnly approved the vintage, and the
man filled their glasses.

"What's going on?" Lori asked.

Clark smiled. "Does anything have to be going on just because I want
to treat my best friend to a nice dinner?"

She glanced uncertainly at him. Clark lifted his glass. "To friends."

She touched the rim of her glass to his and sipped the wine. Her eyes
widened. "This is really good!"

"It's a favorite of mine," Clark said. "I thought it was appropriate
for tonight."

"Why?"

He smiled. "Here comes our waiter. Have you decided?"

**********

Clark deliberately kept the conversation light while they waited for
their dinner. Soft music played in the background, and he watched as
his partner relaxed under the influence of the low lights, wine and
music. Lori had been on edge ever since her discovery of the body in
Pete Swanson's room this morning. If they were going to have the
time to talk a little later, he didn't want her so keyed up that she

reacted badly to what he had to tell her.

"Hi buddy! Long time no see!" Clark glanced up in mild irritation
at the sound of the brash, cheerful voice. He saw Lori wince.

The owner of the voice, Rob Braddock, had been a friendly rival of
his for some years when he had lived in Europe. Rob was a free lance
investigative journalist like he had been until recently. Clark made
introductions. "Lori, this is Rob Braddock. Rob, my partner at the
Daily Planet, Lori Lyons."

"Oh, yeah. Somebody said you'd gone to work at the Planet. Getting
tired of free-lancing, huh?"

"Something like that."

"I heard the two of you stumbled over a big story this morning..."

"Rob," Clark said, "we've had a rough day. I'd rather not talk shop
right now."

"Don't blame you. What happened to Pat? His name is on the schedule
for tomorrow."

"Pat wound up in the hospital at the last minute," Clark said. "My
editor assigned Ms. Lyons in his place."

Rob grinned. "Nice to meet you, Ms. Lyons."

Lori nodded and smiled mechanically at him. Clark said hastily,
"Rob, we'll talk after dinner, okay? Lori and I need a little
decompression time."

"Sure." Rob glanced at Lori and then back at Clark's face and
suddenly seemed to catch on. "See you later, Clark."

After Rob had gone, Clark glanced at his partner. "After dinner,
let's not hang around, okay? I'd just like to go back to our room
and talk."

This time the smile was genuine. "I'd like that." She looked past
him. "I think this is it coming now."

Dinner was, for once, undisturbed. When they finished, the waiter
brought Lori a decadent chocolate confection that made her eyes light
up. When the man had set it in front of her and departed, she looked
at Clark with a smile.

"Was this your idea?"

"Of course," Clark said. "You looked as if you needed it."

"I did. You must have read my mind. You didn't did you?"

He shook his head. "We don't read each others' minds much. It's not
easy, and it's considered rude. And I couldn't read yours if I
wanted to. When one of us is very close to someone else, we can
sometimes tell strong emotions, but that's all. You'll never have to
worry about your mind's privacy from me, Lori."

"Can you tell my emotions?"

"Sometimes. When Gossett had you prisoner, I could tell you were
afraid and in pain, but I couldn't communicate with you. I was able
to tell direction, though, if not your exact location. That's why
Rhonda and I arrived so quickly when you signaled. We were already
on our way."

"Oh. I didn't think of that."

"I know. You weren't in any condition to do much thinking by the
time we got there." He looked sober. "I came awfully close to
giving him a taste of his own medicine. The only reason I didn't was
that I knew what you'd think of me if I did. It was one of the few
times I've ever come that close to doing something I'd regret."

She reached across the table and put her hand on top of his clenched
one. "I'm glad my opinion means that much to you. I'm not sure I'm
worth it."

He subdued a spark of anger for the mother who had so damaged her self
confidence.

"Don't ever say that, Lori. You're worth more to me than you have any idea of.
I just wish you'd stop undervaluing yourself."

He turned his hand over and slipped it around hers. "I know you
think your sister is prettier than you are, and that your mom told
you that you talk too much when you're nervous, as well as a lot of
other things, most of them not true. Brad and I had a conversation
about it the day after we caught Gossett and his goons. I want to
tell you something. In my opinion, your sister doesn't hold a candle
to you, and I like the way you talk when you get nervous. There
isn't anything I don't like about you, except your habit of putting
yourself down. Nobody puts down the woman I love."

Lori was staring at him, wide-eyed. "Clark..." She gulped, and even
in the dim light, he could see her blinking back tears. "I've never
heard anything so beautiful in my life." Again she gulped and gave a
watery smile. "I guess love really is blind."

"Maybe." He released her hand. "Go ahead and eat that thing. I
want to have that talk before something else happens."

**********

They left the restaurant ten minutes later and made their way through
the lobby toward the elevator. Lori looked at the grim expression on
Clark's face and remembered what she had discovered a few days ago in
Metropolis. Clark was about to do something that frightened him
badly. He was going to tell her...something, and whatever it was he
was afraid it would drive her away from him. That took courage and
character; whatever he intended to tell her could, at least in his
estimation, cost him something he had already made plain was precious
to him--and yet he was going ahead with it because he felt it was
necessary to be fair to her. Her welfare was more important than his
own. Lori wasn't sure she wanted to hear it. Was it so important
that she know whatever this awful secret was if it made her change
her mind about him?

Clark glanced down at her and gave her a tight smile. "I thought
this would be so simple," he said. "It's as hard as it was the first
time."

"The first time?" Lori asked.

"Yeah." They came to a stop before the elevator and paused. "When I
decided to explain the fact that I led a double life to..." He broke
off as the elevator doors slid open and two persons emerged and
headed toward the restaurant. Clark and Lori boarded.

"Second floor," Clark said.

"Your wife," Lori said.

"Yes, my wife." Clark smiled a little sadly. "It turned out that I
was interrupted and she found out on her own. She was furious that
I'd kept it from her for two years. She felt I'd made a fool of her;
I think she was as angry with herself as she was at me, and she was
as afraid of making a commitment as she was angry. Eventually we
straightened it all out, though, and we were married."

"But I already know," Lori said. "I wasn't angry."

"It's not the same secret," Clark said. "You know the first
part--the fact that I'm, well, you know. The second part is a little
harder to explain, but I can't let things go any farther without you
knowing all of it."

The elevator braked to a halt on the second floor and they headed
straight for their room. Clark opened the door with their electronic
key, gestured Lori through and quietly hung the "Do Not Disturb" sign
on the door.

"I don't care what people think," he said. "This time we're going to
talk without interruptions."

Lori shrugged. "I don't care what they think, either. Everyone
already thinks I'm sleeping with you. Most of the women and
according to Margot at least two men are jealous. Besides, the only
person who would care is my mom, and she's not here."

Clark smiled fractionally. "Good attitude. Lori, before we go any
farther, I'd like you to remember that I'm not asking anything of
you. If you feel like you can't handle this, you have every right to
walk away, but I hope we can still be friends. If I have to, I can
live with that."

"Clark--"

"But before you make any decision, pro or con, I'd like you to take
at least a day to think over whatever choice you're going to make. I
don't want you to ever be sorry you didn't make the other."

"Clark, you're scaring me. Nothing can be that bad."

"I hope not." He sat down on his bed and folded his hands in his
lap. Lori sat down on her own bed, facing him. "You know I'm
different from an ordinary human in several obvious ways."

"Well, sure."

"Well, there are several differences that aren't obvious. One in
particular is what I'm worried about. How much difference can you
live with?"

"What do you mean?" She frowned, trying to understand what he meant.
"You're not saying that--physically--I mean, you look like a man."

"Huh?" Clark looked startled. "Oh, no. That's not it. Physically
I look the same as any other guy."

Lori ducked her head. "Sorry. I thought you meant..."

"Lori, we Kryptonians have had children with human men and women. We
look exactly the same as humans. But, besides our powers there's one
big difference." He stopped, closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
"It's our molecular structure."

"What?"

"Our molecular structure is dense. It slows the aging process to a
crawl. I'm older than I look--a lot older."

"How much older?" she whispered.

"Physically, I'm what you see--a man of about twenty-nine or thirty.
Lori, I'm Superman, but what you didn't know is that I'm not just a
Superman. There's only ever been one--the original. I'm the Clark
Kent who came to Earth from Krypton as a baby--in the year 1966."

**********

For long minutes after he had finished speaking, Lori was absolutely
silent. The silence stretched out for what seemed forever. Her face
had lost color, but her expression was impossible to read, even for
him. He had to fight the urge to reach out and take her hands, to
beg her to say something, but he forced himself to remain silent
until his nerves had stretched so thin he was sure they would snap.

"Are you angry with me?" he whispered.

She looked slowly down at the hands she had clasped tightly in her
lap, then slowly up again to his face.

"No." The word was almost inaudible, and dismayed, he saw tears
gathering in her eyes. "No. I wondered...but I didn't expect this."

"Lori, please don't cry. I can't stand to see you cry."

"Why did you fall in love with me, Clark?" she whispered. "My
parents--my grandparents--were children when you were grown and
married...even had children of your own. You're so far beyond me..."

"Lori, I'm not. I'm just a man who has the same hopes, dreams and
feelings as any other man--including love." He reached out
hesitantly to touch her hand, but she didn't pull away, and he took
the hand in his. "'Why' isn't something I can answer. It just is."

A tear rolled down her cheek. "Your wife was Lois Lane, wasn't she?
That's *your* picture at the Planet."

He nodded. "I missed her every day for over twenty years--until I met you."

"You'll outlive me, too, Clark."

"Maybe," Clark said, gently. "And maybe not." He was holding both
her hands now. "Lori, I nearly died yesterday morning. It's because
of you that I didn't. My entire family owes it to you that our
secret wasn't revealed for the whole world to see, and all our lives
ruined. I don't know what will happen tomorrow; none of us does, no
matter who we are or how long we *expect* to live. However many
years we have, I want to spend them with you, if you'll have me. I
don't want to waste them." He felt her hands tighten slightly in
his. "The number of years doesn't matter anyway, because they don't
exist. All anyone ever has is *now*."

"It isn't fair," she said in a small voice. "I was going to get my
career started, get myself established, and *then* maybe make time
for marriage and a family. I never expected to fall in love with
you."

His heart jumped but he kept his voice level. "Does that mean you'll
consider it?"

"I can't *not* consider it," she said. Her voice broke and she began
to cry in earnest. "Darn it, Clark! Why did I have to fall in love
with you?"

He moved over to sit next to her. "I'm sorry, Lori."

She didn't answer. Hesitantly, he put out his arms and pulled her to
him. She didn't resist. He held her and stroked her hair while her
tears soaked his shirt, until the emotional storm blew itself out.

When the tears had subsided to an occasional sniffle and hiccup, he
spoke again.

"Lori," he said quietly, "you don't have to make any decision now.
Take as long as you need to work it out for yourself. I'll wait. I
don't want you to ever regret anything you decide to do."

She nodded against his shoulder.

"But," Clark said softly, "if you do decide you'll have me, I promise
you I'll never stop loving you, and I'll never leave you for as long
as both of us live, unless you throw me out."

"I know." Her voice was muffled. "You're a good man, Clark."

She moved to free herself and he let her go at once. "Okay now?"

"Well, maybe not okay, but better." She gave him a shaky smile, and
rose to her feet. "I need to wash my face. Thank you, Clark."

"For what?"

"For telling me the truth. I need time to think; you were right
about that, but I promise that whatever happens, I'll never stop
being your friend."

"I appreciate that." He subdued the desire to drop to his knees and
beg her to make a decision in his favor right now. It was *her*
welfare that mattered; he had to remember that, but he couldn't help
the fear that gripped him at the thought that she might decide
against him.

**********

Lori splashed cold water on her face, then soaked a washrag in cold
water and held it across her eyes. She really looked horrible right
now, and she didn't want anyone to see her like this. Her sister and
mother had always emphasized physical appearance in a woman; her
mother had been a strikingly attractive woman in her twenties and
thirties, and even now in her late fifties she still turned heads.
Marcy took after her. Lori and Brad resembled their father, with
their dark hair and brown eyes, a point frequently deprecated by
Mariann Lyons. She didn't want Clark or anyone to see her looking
this way with her eyes red and swollen and her nose running.

Clark. What was she going to do? Clark was Superman, the man from
Krypton who had started the whole line of supermen. Every one of
them was his descendent. He was the legendary Kal-El, the most
honored of all the superheroes, who had fought his own people to save
the Earth when the New Kryptonians had invaded a century ago. The
story of that invasion was in the history books. When Superman had
disappeared fifty years before, everyone had assumed that their hero
was dead, and an enormous memorial had been erected in Metropolis to
honor him. But he wasn't dead--he was sitting in their hotel room
waiting for her to come back out. Why on Earth did he want *her*?
And more importantly, how could she possibly live up to the standard
of the woman who had been the mother of the new race of
Kryptonian/humans whose avowed mission was to protect humanity?

And yet, for some reason, he did want her, and wanted her badly. She
had seen the fear in his face when she walked away from him a few
moments ago. Clark loved her, and she loved him, in spite of all the
reasons it shouldn't have happened. The question was, could she live
up to the challenge of being Superman's wife?

No, not Superman's wife, Clark Kent's. He was Clark first; he had
made that abundantly clear. Superman was his way of being able to
help, of using his incredible abilities without sacrificing his
private life to public scrutiny every minute of every day.

Lori found herself staring into the mirror at her reddened eyes, and
remembering what he had said to her earlier in the evening. "There
isn't anything I don't like about you except your habit of putting
yourself down."

For some reason, to him she was something special and unique. No one
had ever made her feel that way before; even Brad hadn't gone so far
as to say the things Clark had--after all, he was her brother, not
the man who loved her and wanted to marry her. That was obviously
Clark's intent. But was it a role she could fill? Was it something
she even wanted?

There was a light knocking on the door. Clark's voice said, "Lori?
Are you all right in there?"

She'd been in here for twenty minutes, she realized in surprise.
"I'm all right, Clark." Her voice was steady, in spite of the knot
that clenched in her stomach. She was going to have to go out and
face him sometime--she wasn't going to make any life altering
decision in here, that was for sure. "Let me just fix my makeup and
I'll be right out."

**********

When she emerged from the bathroom ten minutes later, she looked
almost fearfully at him, but he hadn't changed. He didn't look like
the demi-god who had been portrayed in the history books that she had
read in school. He looked like Clark, a nice, ordinary (although
incredibly good-looking, a sneaking corner of her mind
interjected)--man who at the moment appeared very worried.

"Are you all right?" he asked again.

She nodded. "I'm all right, Clark. Are you?"

"Me? Sure."

It was a lie. Clark didn't lie very well, and that was definitely
one. She examined his face, seeing the lines of tension there, and
her heart melted. Clark was as upset as she was, but he was
determined not to pressure her. This might be the godlike Superman,
but it was also Clark who had become her best friend, who had saved
her life at least two or three times in the last six months, and who
was putting her welfare ahead of his own no matter what it cost him.
Certainly, he deserved some consideration.

"Clark, I think we should just go about our business like we were
doing before," she said, suddenly. "We don't need to sit up here
being uncomfortable with each other. I'll think a lot more clearly
after I've had a while to digest all this, anyway. Let's go
downstairs, talk to your friends and try to relax. What do you
think?"

He gave a slight smile. "I think that's probably a good plan. Let's go."

**********

Quite a number of the journalists had gathered in the bar since they
had been upstairs. Lori saw Margot eyeing her knowingly, and was
surprised to find that it didn't bother her in the least. Let Margot
think what she wished. It wasn't important beside the momentous
decision that faced Lori. She let Clark get her a non-alcoholic
drink and sipped it as he introduced her to journalists she had not
met the night before, and exchanged small talk with them. Angelo,
the bartender, and two of his assistants were busy serving drinks;
she didn't envy him his job, she thought. On the other hand, he
seemed to enjoy conversing with his customers and she had found him
to be a friendly and gregarious person when she had spoken to him
earlier, so maybe this was the kind of job he enjoyed. Tending bar
in a nice hotel, after all, must be far superior to the same position
in some of the seedier sections of Metropolis.

"Ms. Lyons?" It was one of the young women carrying a tray of
drinks. "Angelo asked me to tell you he remembered something else.
Would you go to the bar, please?"

"Sure." Lori excused herself to Clark and crossed the room to where
the bartender was pouring a drink for a customer. The man nodded to
her.

"I'll be right with you," he said. He turned and filled a beer mug,
set it in front of a tall, lanky man, collected the money and turned
his station over to an assistant. He beckoned Lori over to the end
of the bar.

"I've been thinking about the little skinny guy," he said, "trying to
remember something about him, like you asked. There wasn't a whole
lot--he was one of those people who kind of fade into the background,
you know? He was barely taller than you, though, a little prissy
kind of guy, maybe sixty or so. That's mostly what I remember about
him."

"Do you remember any particular features or anything?" Lori asked.
"Any scars, eye color, anything?"

Angelo squinted into the distance, obviously making a real effort to
recall. "I'm not sure; he kept his face down mostly, but I think his
eyes were blue. I don't remember any scars, though. I'm sorry I
can't help any more than that."

Lori shook her head. "Don't be. That's more than we had before. Thanks."

"Don't mention it." Angelo's smile flashed. "Glad I could help."

Lori glanced around the room. Clark was standing in a corner
speaking to Rob. The information could wait, she thought. Nothing
was going to happen in the next few minutes. She glanced around,
looking for a place to sit down where she could think in private.
There was an empty booth in the far corner, and she made her way
quietly toward it.

She slid into the seat, making herself as inconspicuous as possible
and sat back, watching her partner from a distance. He stood in a
circle of men and women who were laughing and talking, but he wasn't
laughing. He smiled occasionally, but the smile seemed forced to
Lori, although no one else appeared to notice anything wrong. He
answered someone's question, and there was a general laugh among the
others. One of the men clapped him on the shoulder and turned away
toward the bar. She frowned as she realized what she was seeing. In
spite of his obvious popularity with his colleagues, Clark was oddly
alone. But he hadn't seemed that way when he had been with her.

Her wrist talker beeped softly, and she touched the little button at
the bottom to activate it. "Lori Lyons."

"Lori, it's Rhonda."

"Rhonda?" The woman must be relaying through at least four booster
stations to reach her via wrist talker, and the connection was
riddled with static. "Is that really you?"

"Yes." Rhonda's voice was terse. "Old Hurricane Harry is really
kicking up a fuss where you are. Oliver had to pull special priority
to get me through. Just listen. We could lose the connection any
second. He got the information for you. Myers was a passenger on
Western Shuttle Lines. He boarded in Metropolis, and arrived in Alta
Mesa at five-thirty yesterday. You were right; he doesn't work for
Mechtel Corporation. His company paid for his shuttle ticket and his
reservation at La Mesa Grande, but the reservation wasn't made until
after he arrived in Alta Mesa. He works for Metropolis United
Insurance Company, as an insurance investigator." The last word
trailed off, and Rhonda's voice was drowned in static.

**********

An insurance investigator. Lori thought about the information Rhonda
had given her, turning the facts over in her mind. They should be
telling her something, she thought. There was a pattern here and it
wasn't a pretty one. An insurance investigator for Metropolis United
Insurance had come to Alta Mesa and had been murdered. Last night,
someone had tried to assault her in the hallway outside the lounge.
Pete Swanson had left the bar in the company of a skinny little man
with blue eyes and never been seen again, and the murdered man had
turned up in his room. Less and less did she believe that it was
simply a coincidence. There was some common thread here, if she
could just see it.

Metropolis United was the company that insured the Westhaven
diamonds. Pete Swanson had been investigating a ring of jewel
thieves. Was that a connection? She didn't know, but she and Clark
had been reporting on the theft of the diamonds, and a ring was still
missing. The common thread here seemed to be jewels.

But why would anybody assault her? And who was the mysterious little
man who might be their murderer?

The answer hit her suddenly, almost breathtaking in its simplicity,
and with it what was very possibly the solution to their mystery. Suppose--just
suppose--that someone had been afraid the police, investigating him
for the possible theft of the missing Westhaven ring, would discover
it in his possession, and he had known that she and Clark were
leaving the country for a few days. Clark could have easily
mentioned it to him when he made the appointment for them to meet him
that morning for breakfast and an interview. And she had been
terribly distracted for a few vital minutes...

Lori's eyes fell on her purse. She had discovered the torn seam that
afternoon and been annoyed that her brand new purse had already
developed a tear in the seam. But what if it hadn't been shoddy
manufacture? It shouldn't have been. The bag Brad and Sharon had
given her was expensive and of good quality.

Lori opened her purse and ran a hand down inside, pawing through
various items and felt in the bottom. Under the lining was a
distinctive lump.

Casually, she withdrew her hand and fastened the catch of the bag
securely. Feeling as if she was carrying a hot coal, she slung the
purse onto her shoulder and, gripping the strap tightly, stood
up. Where was Clark? He had been there before Rhonda's call, but
now he wasn't anywhere in sight.

She looked around, trying to spot him. Clark wasn't in the room.
Where had he gone?

"Lori!" Margot called. She appeared at the table, a drink in one
hand. "We still have to talk, honey! I wanted to hear all about it!"

"Margot, where did Clark go?" Lori asked urgently.

"He went looking for you," Margot said. "I figured maybe you were
trying to avoid him, so I didn't tell him you were over here. What's
the matter? Did you two fight?"

"No, I just have a headache. Too much wine," she improvised. "I'm
not used to drinking much. I need to find Clark. I want to go back
to my room and lie down."

"Okay. He went out into the hall," Margot said. "Come on, we can
probably catch him."

Together the two women hurried out of the bar. There was no one in
the hall but a bellboy, who disappeared through the door to the lobby
at the same instant she noticed him. Lori looked around. "I don't
see him."

Something cylindrical and cold pressed into her back: the muzzle of a
stunner. Margot said, "Don't look back, sweetie. Head straight down
that hall. There's an elevator for the hotel staff at the end.
Don't do anything stupid and you might live through this."

**********

Clark glanced around the crowded, dimly lighted room, lamenting the
loss of his enhanced vision. Music blared from hidden speakers on
the walls, and the chatter of conversation was loud in his ears.
Where was Lori? She had gone to the bar ten minutes ago and had not
returned.

He excused himself from the circle of other journalists and moved to
the bar, scanning the room as well as he could in the low lights.
There was no sign of his partner.

Angelo, the bartender, was mixing a drink, and one of his assistants
approached Clark. "What'll it be?"

"I need to speak to Angelo," Clark explained. "It's urgent."

The assistant raised an eyebrow, but nodded. "I'll tell him."

While Clark waited, he drummed his fingers restlessly on the counter.
The assistant spoke to Angelo, his voice inaudible to Clark over the
noise of many voices and the blare of the music. The bartender
nodded.

Clark looked around again. It was possible that Lori had just gone
to visit the powder room, but the fact that she had been so upset,
and the unexplained attack last night warred in his mind. Whether
she chose to accept or reject him was immaterial at the moment. What
did matter was her physical safety, as long as the assault of the
night before remained unexplained.

"You wanted to talk to me?" Angelo was standing before him.

"Yes. I'm Clark Kent--Ms. Lyons' partner. She was just speaking
with you. Did you see where she went?"

"Yeah. She went over to sit in the corner booth over there." He
pointed. "Looks like she's gone now, though."

"Thanks."

"No problem."

She had been sitting in the booth. Clark scanned the area once more.
Two figures were moving toward the door, and even in the low light,
he recognized Margot, with Lori's shorter figure at her side.
Quickly, he started after them, but they vanished through the opening
seconds before he could reach them.

Clark shouldered his way through the crowd. Something wasn't right.
Why should Lori leave the bar with Margot? She had wanted to avoid
being alone with the woman. Margot hadn't been exactly subtle in her
desire to worm any juicy details of their sexual relationship out of
his partner, and he was well aware that Margot's obsession with every
possible salacious detail would not allow her to accept a denial of
any such relationship from Lori. Lori must know it, too.

He reached the door in time to see them turn left down a hall that
branched away from the main corridor, apparently having ignored the
entrance to the lobby directly across from the bar. That was odd.
That hall led to the parts of the hotel frequented by staff and
management of the establishment, according to the floor plan he had
studied in the lobby. Something most definitely wasn't right. All
his instincts said so, and tugging persistently at the back of his
mind was a strange feeling that he recognized--it was the part of his
telepathic ability that picked up the strong emotions of his soul
mate. Lori was scared.

Instinct told him to rush to her rescue, but common sense triumphed.
He didn't know exactly what was going on, but it couldn't be good.
If he went barreling into the situation, he could conceivably make
things worse. He moved quietly after them, ready to charge Margot if
she made any move to harm the younger woman.

"Where are we going?" He could just make out Lori's voice, strained with fear.

Margot's voice was casual. "To see someone who wants to meet you."

"Why?"

"Because you have something that belongs to us. Move!"

What did Margot mean by that? His hearing was definitely coming back;
he could hear Lori's heartbeat faintly, light and fast, but when he
tried to float, nothing happened. His hearing had always tended to
come back before his other powers after exposure to Kryptonite, he
recalled, although he hadn't been exposed to the stuff in over ninety
years. He couldn't count on any of his powers this time; that was
becoming very obvious. It was going to have to be human ingenuity
and human ability, and if any of his other powers came back in time,
it would be an unexpected bonus.

The elevator door opened and Margot pushed Lori into it. Clark
ducked into the stairwell seconds later and ran up the stairs as fast
as he could, heedless of the noise, but his progress was painfully
slow to a man used to super speed, and he didn't know on which of the
hotel's three floors Margot's room was located. Of course, that
might not be where they were headed, but Margot was taking Lori to
see someone, and their "little skinny guy" had to be hiding
somewhere, assuming he was the one Lori was being taken to see. Of
course, this might not be connected to the murder at all, but Clark
didn't believe in this kind of coincidence. Somehow, whatever it was
that Lori was supposed to have that they wanted was connected to the
murder of Tom Myers, the disappearance of Pete Swanson, and the
assault on Lori last night.

He paused at the landing and peered out of the small window set in
the door. There was no sign of Lori and Margot, and he was just
about to start up the remaining flight when he heard the faint 'ding'
of the elevator. The doors slid open, and the two women emerged.

From this angle, he could see that Margot held a stunner pressed
firmly to Lori's spine, directly between the shoulder blades. He
swallowed. Stunners were designed to temporarily jar the nervous
system and render a target unconscious, but they were not completely
harmless, at least in certain circumstances. A maximum stun blast
right against the spine had been known to cause spinal trauma, and
although modern science could repair damaged nerves and spinal
tissue, an injury to that portion of the spine could cause her death
from asphyxiation before help could arrive. He wasn't about to risk
Lori's life like that unless there was no other choice.

He forced himself to remain absolutely still until they had passed
beyond his range of vision, then eased the door open a crack. Lori
and Margot were just rounding the corner far down the hall to the
left. He waited until they had disappeared, pushed the door open and
followed.

When he rounded the corner, they had disappeared, but on the floor,
as if dropped and kicked carelessly aside, was Lori's handbag. He
scooped it up one handed without pausing, and hurried to the next
corner, but there was no sign of them. Clark stopped and listened.

Lori's heartbeat was distinctive to him; he could have distinguished
it from among a thousand others. It came from behind him. Clark
retraced his steps, listening carefully as he passed each door.
There it was.

There were three heartbeats in the room, Lori's, Margot's and a third
that seemed familiar. Then a man's voice spoke, and in a flash, he
recognized it.

David Merrick. Clark's hands balled into fists, as a great part of
the mystery they had been trying to unravel grew suddenly clear.
Trying to look as innocent as possible, should someone pass by, he
stood in the hall, listening.

**********

Margot herded Lori down the hall toward the elevator. She didn't
resist. Her chances of escape were slim, and getting shot by a
stunner in the back was not appealing. Even if it didn't seriously
injure her, it would be unpleasant, and the aftereffects were said to
be very uncomfortable.

Where was Clark? What she wouldn't give to have him appear on the
scene right now! Unfortunately, she had hidden from him and he had
gone looking for her. She was going to have to try to talk her way
out of this, or at least confuse things as much as she could. One
thing she didn't do easily was give up. At least she had information
that Margot couldn't know she knew. She had no illusions about this.
If, as she now suspected, the "little skinny guy" was David Merrick,
he and possibly Margot had already killed at least one man. Killing
her wouldn't make the penalty any worse than it already was.

She had one hope. Clark had said he could feel intense emotions from
her. Maybe, just maybe he would be able to tell that something was
wrong, and would come looking for her. It was a thin thing to base a
hope on, but it was all she had.

The elevator opened within a second of their arrival, and Margot herded her in.

"Second floor," she said.

"Where are we going?" Lori asked. "Why don't you just ask me for
whatever you think I have? I don't take things that belong to other
people, and neither does Clark."

"Be quiet," Margot said. "Has anybody ever told you that you talk too much?"

"Yes," Lori said. "My mother."

"She was right. Just shut up."

"Okay," Lori said. She fell silent, trying to decide what to do
next. The ring was in the bottom of her purse, but did Margot know
that? If she did, wouldn't she have shown more interest in the
handbag? Why was Margot helping Merrick, if that was who was behind
this? How did she even *know* him?

There was, as Clark had said, much more to this than met the eye.

There was the group of international jewel thieves Margot had spoken
about earlier. They did exist, Lori knew. She remembered reading
about them while she and Clark had been in the middle of the
Mayflower investigation. What a spot for Margot, if she were a
member of the group! An investigative journalist, with perfectly
legitimate reasons to go from country to country without any
questions being asked. She would make a perfect courier for stolen
jewels. But Merrick...if he had stolen the ring, and Lori was now
certain he had, and planted it on her to get it out of the country...

Assuming that she was right, Merrick's whole set of actions had been
strange if he was trying to smuggle out a fabulously expensive piece
of jewelry for them. If the theft of the ring had been for this
group, why had he used *her* for a courier? Anything could have
happened to the ring; she and Clark could have discovered it, for one
thing. It seemed like a very chancy thing to do. Wouldn't they have
used one of their regular couriers? And would someone in his
position attend to the actual recovery of a piece of smuggled jewelry
personally, or would he simply alert his bosses so another member of
the gang could take care of that part? It certainly seemed to make
more sense that way.

So, maybe, just maybe, Merrick was in this for himself.

So, why was Margot helping him? Especially since she didn't seem to
know that the ring was in the bottom of Lori's bag.

Lori's mind was racing, stringing together a few half-formed ideas
that all of a sudden made a terrible sense. She was coldly afraid,
but it didn't seem to affect her ability to think. What if Margot
didn't know that Merrick meant to double cross his bosses and keep
the ring for himself, perhaps to disappear and retire in luxury to
some country that had no extradition treaty with the United
States--even if anyone could ever find him? He might have recruited
her to reclaim the ring he had hidden in Lori's purse, but if what
she was guessing at was true, that meant Margot's life expectancy
would be almost as short as her own promised to be.

And he might not have told Margot where he had hidden the ring. It
didn't seem likely that he would trust another person, even a
supposed ally, with that information. Somehow, 2.7 million dollars
or not, she had to get rid of it. Once Merrick got what he wanted,
he had no more reason to keep her or Margot alive.

The elevator braked to a stop and the door slid open. Margot nudged
her with the muzzle of the stunner between the shoulder blades.
"Out. Walk straight down the hall until you get to the first
intersection and turn left."

Meekly, and very conscious of the stunner muzzle pressed between her
shoulder blades, Lori obeyed. For a brief moment she almost felt as
if someone were watching her, but dismissed it as imagination. If
only Clark had realized that she was in trouble and would come to
help!

Another thought struck her, and she was briefly glad that he didn't
know. Clark had no super powers right now. He would be as
vulnerable as she to any weapons Margot and Merrick had between them.
There was no doubt whatsoever in her mind that he would do everything
in his power to protect her, which meant he would very likely get
himself seriously hurt or killed. This way, if she didn't manage to
get away, he might mourn her but he would survive. Above all, she
didn't want Clark to fall prey to this murderous duo, not even if it
would save her life. She loved him far too much for that.

It was a revelation, although it hadn't come to her the way she'd wanted it to.

As they rounded the corner, she shifted the purse off her shoulder
and gripped it in front of her.

"Uh uh," Margot said. "Don't even think about it, sweetie. You're
too anxious to hit people with that thing."

Lori dropped it on the floor of the hallway. "Were you the one I hit?"

Margot laughed shortly. "No, but I know what you did to David. He's
not happy with you."

Lori didn't answer. She'd pushed the subject just about as far as
she thought was safe.

"Stop," Margot said. "Knock three times, stop and knock twice."

Lori obeyed, and after a few seconds the door opened. Before her
stood a little man with bright, blue eyes. On his head, he wore a
white bandage stained with dried blood. David Merrick stood back, a
tight, prim smile on his lips. "Come in, Ms. Lyons. Please shut the
door behind you."

Lori entered the hotel room, her eyes riveted on his face. She was
about to embark on the biggest bluff of her life. All she could do
was to stall and hope that something would happen that would allow
her to get away. "Merrick, " she said, softly. "So it *is* you.
Clark and I thought it might be when we found the ring."

The little man's face hardened. "You *found* it?"

"This afternoon," Lori said. "It was in my purse, under the lining.
You put it there that morning at the Green Gourmet, didn't you?"

Merrick didn't answer. "Where is it?"

"In the hotel safe," Lori said. "Well out of your reach. As soon as
communications clear, Clark is going to call his friend Superman to
take it back to Metropolis."

"Well, then, we'll have to get it back before then, won't we?" Merrick said.

Lori's heart was pounding suffocatingly in her chest, but she wasn't
going to show him any fear. "And what are you going to do after you
get it--if you can figure out *how* to get it? I'm sure you're going
to kill me, but how about Margot?"

Margot laughed. "Sweetie, don't be an idiot."

"I'm not," Lori said. "He's planning to keep the ring, Margot, don't
you see? He wouldn't have stuck it in my purse in the first place,
and he wouldn't be here personally trying to get it back from Clark
and me if it was just business as usual. Think about it for a
minute! How many people have been killed over ten dollars, much less
for 2.7 million dollars? Nobody else but you, Clark and I know the
whereabouts of the ring. If we're all dead, who's going to know?"

For an instant, doubt flickered on Margot's face. Then Merrick laughed.

"A very nice scenario, Ms. Lyons," he said. "Ms. Ryerson knows what
happens to persons who betray our organization. I wouldn't be such a
fool." He turned to Margot. "We're going to have to find Kent.
He'll get the ring for us if he thinks it will save Ms. Lyons. Can
you do it?"

Margot nodded. "Sure, I can."

"Then go ahead. I'll take care of Ms. Lyons here. We need her alive
until we have the item. After that, she becomes a liability."

"I suppose you betrayed Pete Swanson, too," Lori said. "It must be
nice to know what sort of person you really are, underneath. How
many deaths are on your conscience, Margot, or don't you have one?
Is this what you became an investigative journalist for?"

Merrick held out his hand for the stunner. "No one is listening to
you, Ms. Lyons, so I recommend you save your breath," he said. He
took the stunner and gestured with it. "Sit down in that armchair,
where I can watch you. I have no hesitation in using this, so unless
you wish to wake up with a severe headache, you will not resist." He
added quite casually, "Do you know, Ms. Lyons, the result of the
repeated firing of a stunner at close range? The cumulative effect
is brain damage. I won't need to kill you. Of course, by then you
won't care, so it would be best if you behave."

Lori moved to the chair and sat down. "Is that what you did to Pete Swanson?"

Merrick ignored her. "Go, Ms. Ryerson. The sooner we conclude this
business the better."

**********

Outside the room, Clark listened in growing horror to the
conversation. Lori was spinning a tale he could have appreciated if
the situation had not been so serious. If he had had his super
powers, there would be no problem; he could have burst into the room
and even if Lori were hit by a stun beam, a normal one would be
relatively harmless, barring one from inches away. The worst she
would have to face would be the post stunner headache and nausea that
inevitably followed such an event. But if he charged in there now,
all he would be doing would be delivering himself into the hands of
the enemy without helping Lori in the least. He was as vulnerable to
a stunner as she.

He knew Lori had to be lying; they had not found any ring at all. Of
course, he had not heard the beginning of the conversation, so he
didn't know where the ring was supposed to be, but considering that
David Merrick was here, he must have planted it on Lori somewhere, at
some time and the only chance seemed to be the time at the Green
Gourmet. What had Lori had with her that would be a safe place of
concealment for a tiny item like a ring?

He looked down at the purse that Lori had dropped in the hallway.
Why had she discarded it? Was it possible? This was the only item
she had brought with her that she had had in her possession that day,
and it certainly filled the bill. Could she have discovered something
during the short period they had been separated in the bar?

He heard Merrick's command to Margot and the words spurred him to
action. Quickly he strode to the corner of the hallway and ducked
around it. He could search Lori's purse later; right now he
definitely didn't want Margot to see him while she was still within
hearing of David Merrick.

He heard the door open and close, and then Margot's distinctive
footsteps came down the hallway toward him. He glanced around.

No one was in sight, although that could change any minute. How
could he explain this to Security in time to save Lori? If Merrick
became too desperate, what would he do? The man was clearly
ruthless. Lori was merely a tool for him to use to complete his
plan. Her life meant no more to him than the life of Tom Myers, whom
he or Margot had killed. As Lori had said, 2.7 million dollars was a
real incentive to kill someone. He didn't want that someone to be
Lori. There was, however, one possible chance to get her out of this
unharmed.

Margot's footsteps came closer. Clark flattened himself against the
wall. His hearing was tuned to any sound that might indicate the
approach of someone. There were a few people in some of the rooms
nearby, but it seemed that the majority of them were empty. Probably
most of the journalists were downstairs socializing in the bar and
lounge.

Assaulting a woman went against the grain, but it was Lori's life
that was at stake here. To save her, there was very little he
wouldn't do. He drew the line at killing, but assault was another
matter. As Margot turned the corner, Clark grabbed her.

Margot struck expertly at him, but he blocked her as expertly,
silently thanking Ching for teaching him Kryptonian combat techniques
all those years ago. He was stronger than he expected; perhaps his
strength was beginning to come back as well, but only slightly. He
pinned Margot's hands behind her and smothered her instinctive scream
with one hand. Margot bit him, and he gritted his teeth against the
pain. No, he definitely wasn't invulnerable yet.

"Hold still!" he whispered sharply.

Margot rolled her eyes toward him and suddenly stopped struggling.

"If you scream, I'm going to turn you in to Security right now,"
Clark told her, in no uncertain terms. "I don't think they'll have
any doubts about you for long, with Lori as Merrick's prisoner."

Jerkily, Margot nodded. Clark removed his hand, ready to clap it
over her mouth again, but she didn't make a sound. Clark regarded
her coldly.

"I saw what you did to Lori, and I overheard you and Merrick in
there," he said. "I swear to you, Margot, if Lori gets hurt because
of this there won't be a spot on the Earth that's safe for you."

"You can't prove I'm involved," Margot said.

"I don't need to," Clark said. "Once the suspicion's been raised,
I'm sure an investigation will tell us all we need to know. If your
bosses are anything like Mr. Merrick implied, you know where that
will put you. You'll be a loose end." He paused to let her digest
that. "And you should realize that Lori was probably right, anyway.
Merrick's going to keep the ring and you, Lori and I are all
liabilities. Your organization may not look kindly on that sort of
behavior, but if you're dead and they never find out, what will it
matter to him? Either way, you're finished, Margot."

Margot was silent a moment, then she seemed to gather her nerve. "We
want the ring," she said. "You're the only one that can get it for
us. If you want to see Ms. Lyons again, you'll do what you're told."

"I heard what Merrick said. He has no intention of letting her go."
Clark shook his head in disgust. "What happened to you, Margot?
Where is the idealistic investigative journalist I used to know? You
can't even be the same person if you'd allow this to happen to an
innocent young woman. She's barely twenty-one; she has her whole
life in front of her, and you're willing to let her die over a piece
of jewelry."

Margot didn't answer. Clark considered. Calling for super help was
out unless one of his telepathic relatives was passing within a
couple of hundred miles or so. He'd attempted to make contact with
any one of them several times and gotten no response. He could call
Security, but valuable time would be wasted explaining and convincing
the authorities that there really was a crisis. Not to mention, a
hostage situation--with untrained negotiators--wasn't exactly
guaranteed to get Lori out of there in one piece.

He slung Lori's bag over his shoulder. "Come on," he said.

"Where?"

"I want to talk to Mr. Merrick." He pushed her toward the room,
gripping both her wrists behind her back with one hand.

"Ow!" Margot said. "Watch it, Kent! You don't know your own strength!"

He raised an eyebrow, but loosened his grip very slightly. "You're
not going to get away, Margot. And you're not going to get the ring
if you don't do exactly as I say." With his free hand, he seized the
doorknob, twisted it and pushed the door open. "Mr. Merrick?"

Merrick's head whipped around and for a second Clark saw shock on his
face, then he rose to his feet. Lori's wrists had been tied in front
of her and a rope looped around her chest and another around her
waist bound her to the chair. Merrick stood in front of her, facing
the two intruders. Clark saw that he held the stunner in one hand,
aimed directly at him. A long-bladed butcher knife lay on the table
beside Lori's chair--quite possibly the weapon that had been used to
murder Tom Myers. It would have been very easy, a macabre corner of
his mind considered, for Merrick to stab the man once he'd been
stunned.

"Mr. Kent," Merrick said. "I trust Ms. Ryerson conveyed my demands to you."

"More or less," Clark said. He shoved Margot into the room ahead of
him, kicked the door shut behind him and let Lori's bag slither down
his arm to the floor. "And the answer is 'no'."

"I see. You realize, of course, the consequences to Ms. Lyons if you
fail to obey."

"I realize the consequences to her if I give you what you want,"
Clark said. "I'm here to make a different deal."

Lori was looking directly at him. Her gaze flicked to the bag then
moved up to fasten on his face. Her lips moved to shape his name but
no sound emerged. He moved another step closer, holding Margot's
wrists tightly.

Merrick looked nonplused for a moment, then picked up the butcher
knife. "What sort of deal?"

"A trade," Clark said quietly. "Me for her. I'll be your hostage,
and she can get you your ring."

"Clark, no!" Lori burst out.

Clark shook his head at her and pushed Margot forward another couple
of steps. "That's the deal, Merrick," he said. "Take it or leave
it."

"No closer, Mr. Kent," Merrick said. He rested the knife against
Lori's cheek. "I wouldn't want to cause unnecessary damage to Ms.
Lyons' appearance."

Clark stopped. "Let her go," he said.

Merrick chuckled. "And have you refuse to fulfill your part of the
bargain once she's free?" he asked. "I propose a trade. Bring me
the ring, and I will release her."

"I guess we're at a stalemate," Clark said. "The ring stays where it
is until Lori walks out of this room unhurt."

Merrick blinked at him. "Don't be foolish, Mr. Kent."

"Foolish?" Clark said. "Not at all. We can stand here for a long
time debating this and get nowhere. I want Lori out of this, and
that's the only demand I make. You can have your ring--as soon as
she's safe."

The two men stared at each other across the seven feet of space
separating them. Suddenly Merrick nodded. "Very well." I'll
release Ms. Lyons. I hold her here until you're tied in the chair.
Then Ms. Lyons will go with Margot to retrieve the ring from the
hotel safe." He lowered the knife. "Does that satisfy you, Mr.
Kent?"

"She goes first," Clark said. "And she goes alone. You're holding
the stunner; I can hardly escape. Otherwise no deal." He shifted
his weight cautiously, still gripping Margot's hands. "Cut her free,
now, and let her go."

Merrick smiled. "You drive a hard bargain, Mr. Kent. What if I
choose to decline?"

Clark didn't answer directly. With all his strength, he shoved
Margot straight at Merrick, in a direct line between himself and the
stunner.

Margot careened against Merrick, and Clark landed on the two of them
hard, one hand striking at Merrick's knife hand. With or without
powers, he was still heavier than a human man, and he heard the
breath whoosh out of Margot in a long, agonized grunt. Merrick had
dropped the knife, but the stunner rose and fell, striking Clark's
shoulder in a paralyzing blow. He cried out at the pain, and his
left arm dropped helplessly, completely numb. Merrick tried to
follow up on his advantage, striking at Clark's face with the heavy
little weapon, but with his good hand, Clark grabbed for the stunner,
striving to immobilize it, and realized at the same instant that
Margot was groping for the butcher knife.

Lori's foot came within his range of vision, and she kicked the
weapon across the rug, out of reach.

Merrick's finger contracted on the firing stud; he heard the whine of
the stun beam, and felt it brush him like a breath of ice along one
cheek. The part of his body that it touched should have instantly
gone numb, he should have fallen unconscious, but nothing happened.
Why it hadn't stunned him, he didn't understand, but he didn't pause.
He seized the stunner one handed, wrenched it free and hurled it
away. Something smashed in the background. Margot's fist struck him
across the cheekbone and he saw stars, then suddenly the woman was
slumping beneath him. With only one adversary left, Clark seized the
much smaller man's flailing left hand and pinned it to the floor.
Avoiding Merrick's right hand, which was clawing at his eyes, he
rolled his struggling opponent over onto his face. His own left hand
and arm were full of pins and needles and nearly useless, but he
planted a knee in Merrick's back, breathing hard. The little man
writhed furiously if uselessly, spitting obscenities, all his
previous decorum abandoned.

"Clark, are you all right?" Lori's voice sounded slightly
constricted, and he looked up to see her wiggling against the ropes
that bound her to the armchair.

"Yeah. Just winded. Can you get out of those?"

"Now that he's not standing over me, I can!"

As he watched, she wormed her way under the cord that held her upper
torso to the back of the chair, using her bound hands to force it
over her head. She scooted downward, squirming lower and lower in
the seat and, with a certain amount of contortion, slid out of the
remaining rope. She dropped instantly to her knees beside him. "Are
you sure you're okay? Margot hit you!"

"I'm all right," he said again. "What happened to her? I didn't do
anything to her."

"I know. I did." Lori got to her feet and hurried to the vidphone
on the opposite wall. With her bound hands, she punched the red
emergency button with unnecessary force. "When I saw her hit you I
was so mad I kicked her in the jaw."

"Oh. Good job." He found himself laughing, albeit a little
breathlessly. The pins and needles in his left arm had not subsided,
and the limb hung uselessly at his side. "I hope Security hurries.
This is going to be a lot of fun to explain..."

Lori sank down onto the floor beside him and leaned against him,
resting her face on his shoulder. "I hope it doesn't take too long.
I've got a few things to say to you. I've been an idiot, Clark."

"No, you haven't," he said, softly. "Not ever. I love you, Lori.
Haven't I told you not to put down the woman I love?"

"Yeah," Lori said. Clark saw her look down at David Merrick. The
little man had stopped struggling and now lay still, glaring
balefully up at them. "And I think I finally realize how much."

**********

After they had given their stories to the Security personnel, Lori
and Clark were confined to their room until the police could arrive
to investigate the whole mess, whenever that might be, and neither
minded particularly. When the door closed behind them, Lori walked
straight to Clark and put her arms around him, burying her face in
his shoulder. With a certain amount of care for his left arm, which
seemed to have been only badly bruised, Clark wrapped his arms around
her as well.

"Clark, I'm so sorry," Lori said. "I should have realized right away..."

"No, you shouldn't have," Clark said. "You had every right to be
upset. Someday I'll tell you what happened when Lois discovered that
I'd been fooling her for two years with a pair of glasses."

She gave a shaky laugh, and he realized all at once that she was
crying. "Lori? Honey, what's wrong?"

"Nothing." She hugged him tighter. "It just scares me to think what
I could have lost."

"Well, you didn't. And more important, I didn't lose you. Come on.
Let's sit down over here. Much as I enjoy hugging you, I'm getting a
cramp in my shoulder."

"Oh! I should have thought!" She released him at once. "Is your
arm any better?"

"Some." He sank down on his bed, and Lori seated herself beside him.
He took her hands in his. "It will be fine when my powers come back.
Are *you* sure you're okay?" He ran a forefinger over the faint
bruises on her wrists where the rope Merrick had tied her with had
been.

She nodded. "Nothing that won't heal. Do you think they'll let us go?"

"Yeah. Merrick was already under suspicion for theft in Metropolis,
remember, and there's all the other evidence besides. And, you gave
them the ring. I think they'll believe us all right."

"That's good. I don't like the idea of going to jail for something
Merrick did." Her hands squeezed his. "Clark, was I imagining
things, or did he fire that stunner at you during the fight?"

Clark shook his head. "You weren't imagining things. It just didn't
seem to have any effect. I'm not really sure that I understand why,
either. I wasn't invulnerable. Margot hit me right after that, and
it hurt. The only reason I can think of that it didn't work is that
I'm not human."

Lori's eyes widened. "I'll bet that's it! Stunners are supposed to
affect human nervous systems, and yours isn't!"

He looked at her with a touch of misgiving. "Does it matter to you,
Lori--that I'm not even part human?"

"Of course not! If you were, we'd both be in a lot of trouble right
now." She leaned forward to slide her arms around him and to lay her
head against his chest. Automatically, he rested his head atop hers
and closed his eyes. Lori pulled him closer. "I love you, Clark,"
she said. "I don't think I could ever love anybody else. I want to
spend my life with you--if you really want me."

"No putting yourself down, remember," Clark said. "Not anymore." He
smiled into her hair. "Is it a deal?"

"It's a deal," Lori said. She straightened up and looked into his
face, a puzzled expression on hers. "I'm having the strangest
feeling of déjà vu. Like I've done all this before, somewhere."

"Maybe you have," Clark said softly. "Maybe I asked you this in a
previous lifetime."

"Asked me what?"

He slipped from his seat on the bed to kneel at her feet. "Will you
marry me, Lori?"

She looked completely taken aback for a split second, and then her
face broke into a smile. "Yes, Clark, I will."

**********

The Daily Planet newsroom had never looked so good to Lori. They had
arrived in Metropolis on Monday evening via Superman Express, after a
side trip to Paris and a jewelry store Clark knew. Now, walking into
work, she looked down at the glittering stone on her hand, wondering
just what to do with it. She felt conspicuous, but at the same time,
she wanted to show it off, to let the world know that Clark had given
it to her. She looked up at Clark, walking at her side and caught
him smiling at her.

"What?" she asked.

"Nothing," he said. "I just like looking at you."

She felt her face growing warm. Clark could definitely be good for a
girl's ego. Her gaze swung to the picture of Clark and Lois Lane on
the wall by the elevator. It still gave her an odd déjà vu-like
feeling, but at least part of it was explained now.

"Clark! Lori!" John's voice sounded over the early morning chatter
of people getting themselves organized. "In my office, now!"

"Oops," Clark murmured. "Nothing like a yell from the boss first
thing in the morning."

They crossed the Pit to John's office and Clark let Lori precede him,
closing the door behind him. "Yeah, John?"

John turned from the vidphone and looked them over. "Can't the two
of you go anywhere without stirring up a fuss?" he inquired.

"Fuss?" Clark said, innocently. "I thought you liked the exclusive
we sent you."

John grinned. "Actually, I do," he said. "Good work, both of you.
At least Lori didn't wind up with a black eye this time." He dropped
into his chair. "I thought you'd like to hear, Swanson's paper
called to let you know he's going to be all right. Did anyone ever
figure out how he wound up in somebody's house in the town with a big
lump on his head?"

"Nothing anyone can prove," Clark said. "He told Superman the last
thing he remembered was sitting in the bar talking to Merrick. We
think Merrick took him outside, slugged him and left him in an alley.
It was a good thing somebody found him and took him home before the
storm really got going, or he'd have been dead. It was nice of his
paper to call us. We were kind of worried."

"Yeah," John said. "I notice that a story isn't the only thing you
brought home from Alta Mesa." He nodded at Lori's hand.
"Congratulations, Clark. You're a lucky man."

"I know," Clark said. "Thanks."

"Oh, and Lori, welcome to the family," John said straight-faced.

Lori gaped at him. "What?"

"I'll explain later," Clark said, hastily. "Any word on the
Kryptonite bracelet, by the way?"

"Yeah, both good and bad," John said. "The Superman Foundation
financed the purchase of the bracelet, and it's now history. That's
the good part. The bad part is that it was cut from a larger chunk,
and it was only one of four pieces of jewelry made from it. We're
still trying to track down the other three."

"Great," Clark said.

"We've got people working on it," John said. "I'll keep you updated."

"Thanks," Clark said. "I feel like there's a ticking time bomb out
there waiting for me."

"For us," John said. "We'll find them. Now, I want you two doing a
follow up on the Westhaven story. You're both going to be going to
the Metro Charity Art Show tonight, and I want an interview with the
owner of Blake's Jewelers about the theft. Clark, a human interest
story about the betrayal of a long time employee..."

Clark laughed. "Say no more, boss. We're on it."

"Oh, and Clark--"

"Yeah?"

"I'll expect an invitation to the wedding."

"You'll get one," Clark said. "Come on, Lori, we've got a job to do."

Together, they hurried out the door.

The End


(To Be Continued in the Final Story).