Superman circled the city one last time and then, with a sigh of relief, turned and traced a silent path through the night air toward Lois Lane's apartment.

He hadn't liked leaving Lois alone with Lex Luthor for a minute, much less for the half hour between checks that they had negotiated, so he had compromised by making quick, frequent checks on her from a distance. The date seemed to be going well but he hadn't been able to completely relax. The things that he had read in Luthor's own words while he scanned the pages of the diary that morning had left him appalled at the utter depravity of the man. It was difficult to believe that one person could be so completely amoral as Lex Luthor. The things that Luthor had done to build his empire, to eliminate his competitors, to triumph over his opponents, or simply to take down a rival had chilled Clark to the bone, not the least of which had been the clinical matter-of-factness of the writer. There had been no acknowledgement of misdeed, no awareness of right or wrong, only success or failure. Luthor had to be a sociopath of the worst kind, willing to do anything, destroy anyone, commit any crime to achieve his goal. Success was all-consuming, a means to feed his enormous ego. Once he decided that he wanted a certain outcome, he would go to any length to make sure that it succeeded, from simple murder to the most elaborate of schemes. Clark had read of the methods used to destroy people: their careers, their families, their lives -- all to achieve an end. Truly, if anyone deserved to be brought down it was Lex Luthor.

Interestingly, even his failures had been written down in the perspective of a learning experience. The incident with the Messenger and the aborted attempt to destroy the space program in order to place his own station in orbit had been detailed. Luthor had regarded Lois Lane as an inconvenience at the time, a reporter who had stumbled over the mistakes of his confederate, Antoinette Baines, and thwarted the plot. Baines had been a necessary tool to Luthor's plans and he had cold-bloodedly seduced her, all the time intending to dispose of her when their objective was achieved. He had done so earlier than he had originally intended in an effort to throw Lois Lane off the scent, and had partially succeeded, in that her death had covered his own involvement, but Lois had still managed to prevent the destruction of the Messenger substitute and save the program.

Clark still shuddered at how close Lois had come at the time to being his target. Luthor had refrained from killing her only because it might have reawakened the investigation and connected him with the whole affair. He had changed his mind when it looked as if she might be on his trail with the Trevino/Winninger situation, and then called off his assassin when it became apparent that she had not made the connection. And then he had met Lois Lane at the Charity Christmas Ball, and speculated on the benefits of seducing the beautiful and brilliant journalist. She had obviously impressed him at their meeting, and gaining control over her would have its pleasant side, he had written. Killing such a well-known journalist was only a last option now; it might bring too much unwelcome attention to him and that would be a definite inconvenience. Besides, she could possibly be of use to him in the future.

The last entry, dated the morning before the theft of the diary, involved the situation with Josef Carlin and his annoyance with Superman's intervention. He had written that he needed to find out all that he could about this new player in the game, and had as a result, devised a series of tests. There, the diary had ended.

The whole thing had been enough to raise the hair on the back of Clark's neck. It had substantiated his worst fears about the kind of monster with which Lois and he were dealing. He'd argued with her about keeping a watch during her dinner date and she'd told him that she could handle the situation. Still, he hadn't been able to completely abide by their agreement, although he didn't intend to tell her that he'd peeked a little more frequently than they had agreed, just to check on things. When they had left the opera, he had watched them stepping into the limousine and heard Luthor give the chauffeur her address, and had intended to follow them back to her apartment, but at that instant his super-hearing had picked up a scream.

He'd had no real reason not to go to the aid of the woman who had screamed. Lois seemed perfectly safe, and so he had gone. He had thwarted a purse-snatcher in the commission of his crime, and then had been forced to answer another cry for help, this time an attempted rape. A quick glance back at the opera house had told him that Luthor's limousine was gone. A cry for help from downtown Metropolis had brought him to the scene of another emergency; a middle-aged man apparently in the throes of a heart attack. He had flown the man to the emergency room, and then completed a quick circuit of the city before making a beeline for Lois's apartment.

The limousine hadn't arrived yet, of course. It would have had to race with breakneck speed to have got to her place before he did, but he wanted to be there when she arrived just for his own peace of mind. The disquiet that he had been feeling all evening was growing stronger, although it was probably just his impatience to see the date over with. He knew that Lois was perfectly capable of taking care of herself, but he didn't have to like the situation. Superman settled quietly down on the roof of the apartment building to wait.

Twenty-five minutes later there was still no sign of the limousine. Superman took to the air and traversed the route from the apartment to the opera house. There was no sign of them.

Well, maybe they had taken an alternate route. He began to circle the opera house, tracing ever-widening concentric circles through the air as he scanned the territory below. There was no sign of the limousine.

By now he was thoroughly alarmed. Luthor had given the chauffeur Lois's address; of that, he was certain. Still, maybe a quick check of LexTower wouldn't be a bad idea.

In bare seconds he was over Luthor's penthouse and center of business, scanning the building and listening for Lois's heartbeat. Nothing. No sign of either Lex Luthor or Lois.

He choked down panic. This didn't mean that Luthor was on to them, he told himself. Something else must have happened. Maybe the car had broken down, or they had taken an alternate route, but he didn't really believe it. Once more he whisked back to Lois's apartment, but there was still no sign of his partner. He circled over the city again, trying to decide what to do.

Lois's pager! He dug out his cellular phone, dialed in the pager's number and listened closely. Faintly, from the west, he heard a distinctive beeping. In an instant, he was headed in the direction of the sound.

##########

##########

"Where are we?" Lois asked.

"I have no idea." Luthor peered out at the unfamiliar landscape. "What I want to know is where Peter disappeared to."

"Could he have been attacked by something?" Lois asked.

"Maybe." Luthor stepped out of the car and glanced cautiously around. "I don't see him."

Lois stepped gingerly out of the car and looked around as well. Except for the patch of road beside the door illuminated by the dome light, there was blackness all around them. Over their heads, the sky was blotchy with clouds. The moon had not yet risen but here and there breaks in the cloud cover showed the night sky along with a scattering of stars. It was very dark. The car's headlights were out, and from somewhere came a screech that lifted the hair on her head. Some kind of night bird, she thought ... an owl, maybe. Did owls fly south for the winter? Clark might know, but she didn't.

It was definitely cold out here. She crawled back into the car. "What should we do?"

"I'd say the first option is to call for help," Luthor said. "Unfortunately, I don't have my phone. Do you?"

She shook her head. "Perry keeps trying to convince the guys upstairs to furnish us with phones so we wouldn't have to depend on pay telephones to communicate with the office, but they're dragging their feet," she said. "I have my pager, but no phone."

Luthor slid back into the car after her and shut the door. "It's cold," he said, unnecessarily. "Fortunately, the limousine has a phone. We just need to get into the front seat."

"Can we open the privacy panel?" Lois asked. She peered through the heavy sheet of shatterproof glass that separated the front seat from the back. "I think your driver may have locked the door."

Luthor said something under his breath. "I think you're right. Just a second ..." He pushed at a switch on the seat back. Nothing happened.

He swore softly. "It doesn't work."

"Great. I suppose you don't have an extra car key."

"No." Luthor was scowling. "This is looking worse and worse."

Lois thought so too. The thought that it might be a setup had already crossed her mind, but it hadn't occurred to her before that the setup might not be for her. Still, if Lex Luthor was actually the Boss and she had no doubt anymore that he was, wasn't it possible that a rival, or even one of his underlings, might make an attempt on his life? It happened all the time in criminal circles. She'd personally reported on plenty of such incidents. The only problem was, she didn't want to be caught in the fallout.

"Do you have a couple of hairpins?" His voice broke in on her thoughts.

"What?"

"Hairpins. I imagine that elegant coiffure demands at least a few hairpins."

"Oh ... yes." Lois pulled several pins from her French roll and felt her hair tumble instantly to her shoulders. The billionaire smiled briefly.

"I think I prefer to see your hair this way. This should only take a moment."

"What are you going to do?"

"Pick the lock," he said briefly. He thrust the door open and got out. Clutching her coat tightly around her, Lois followed.

It was bitterly cold in the open and the stiff gusts of wind that whipped her coat around her knees didn't help at all. She glanced uneasily to the right and left, straining her eyes to see as Luthor led the way around the rear of the limousine to the driver's side, but could make out nothing in the darkness. An army of assassins could be sneaking up on them and she wouldn't know it.

Once they reached the limousine's door, the big car blocked the wind somewhat, but it was still cold. Lois leaned against the body of the car, clutching her coat tightly around her, while Luthor bent over the lock. She hoped he would hurry. It was freezing out here, and her nerves were jumping. Maybe Clark would fudge on their bargain, she thought hopefully, and check up on her soon. It would really be nice if Superman were looking for her right now. Something was going on here that she didn't understand, but her imagination supplied her with several scenarios, none of them good. She hoped Luthor would be able to unlock the car quickly, although she didn't have a lot of confidence in it. These luxurious vehicles almost certainly had locks that were at least resistant to the ordinary car thief.

Seconds passed and became minutes while Luthor struggled with the lock. Her eyes gradually adjusted to the darkness and she slowly began to make out the leafless skeletons of trees on the side of the road. They weren't as tall as the ones that she could see against the sky in the other direction, but there were quite a lot of them. They also appeared to be regularly spaced in a pattern that didn't seem quite natural, and after a moment she put together what she was seeing. She was looking at an orchard.

"Lex," she whispered, "this is somebody's orchard."

He didn't lift his eyes from his task. "We could be on the land owned by Luthor Agricultural. If so, we're west of the city."

"Why would your chauffeur have taken us there?" she asked.

"I've been wondering that, myself," he said grimly, his attention never wavering from his job. Lois could hear the tiny clicks and scratching noises as he fought with the limousine's lock. Still, she found it interesting that a man in Luthor's position would even have the knowledge or skill to believe that he could pick the lock of a car's door. "This whole thing strikes me as extremely fishy."

"Do you suppose your driver is working for someone else?" she asked, cautiously. "Maybe a kidnap scheme or something? You'd be worth a lot of money to the criminal element of the city."

"The thought had crossed my mind," he said. "Keep an eye out, would you? If you see or hear anyone coming, let me know."

"Sure." She turned again to watch the road and the barren trees of the orchard, straining her ears for any sound.

The gusts of wind made it difficult to hear softer sounds. The branches of the trees crackled and snapped, and in the distance the owl, or whatever it was, screeched again. The rustle of branches and underbrush made it hard for her to tell if anyone was approaching, but she tried. If this was some kind of attempt by someone to kidnap Lex Luthor -- or anything else -- she could very well be regarded as an inconvenient witness.

In the end, it wasn't the sound that alerted her, however. Among the trees, a shadow moved.

At first, she thought it was her imagination. The night was full of shadows, but she watched the spot where she had seen that flash of motion and again she saw it: a human shape that ran across an open space and vanished behind a tree.

"Lex," she whispered, "there's somebody in the trees."

He glanced around. "Where?"

"He ducked behind a tree trunk."

Luthor squinted in the direction that she indicated. "I don't see ... down!"

His hand pulled her down at the same instant that a gunshot cracked and the driver's window radiated cracks.

"Run!" Luthor had jerked her to her feet and suited the action to the word. She floundered after him, sliding and skidding in the mud as a second shot reverberated behind them. A bullet whined past her ear so close that she could have sworn she felt the wind of its passage.

Her ankle turned in the heeled shoes and she staggered, trying to keep her balance, then kicked them off. Her feet might be cold, but being dead was a worse option. Another shot cracked and ahead of her Luthor gave a pained yell and stumbled, clutching at his shoulder, lurched upright and continued to run, although less steadily. Lois caught up with him within a few steps and saw that between the fingers of the hand with which he gripped his upper arm, thick runnels of something dark were tracing their way down his dinner jacket.

The muddy road curved to the right only a few feet ahead. Lois grasped Luthor's wrist as they rounded the curve and pulled him sideways into the weeds and brush on the opposite side of the road from the orchard. Together, they crouched down, trying to control their breathing as the squishy thud of running footsteps rounded the curve of the road behind them.

The footsteps went on by. Lois waited until she could no longer hear them and then tugged Luthor gently be his good arm. "He'll be back in a minute, as soon as he realizes we're not ahead of him," she whispered. "Can you move?"

"Yeah." He breathed heavily and staggered to his feet, leaning on her. She led him away from the road, back into the field.

The ground was rough, full of stones and spiky dead weeds that poked at her bare feet, but she pulled her stumbling companion after her, trying to use care where she set her feet, but not letting it slow her down significantly. She was going to have to pull out burrs and splinters later, if they survived, but survival was the priority now.

The slop-slop of the returning footsteps along the muddy road told her that he was coming back. She pulled her companion down into the scratchy grass behind the skeleton of a bush. More straggly bushes here and there offered them a certain amount of camouflage and she hoped that the darkness would give them concealment.

The footsteps stopped. Hardly daring to breathe, Lois peered through the branches of the bush at the lanky silhouette barely visible against the orchard's trees. A flashlight blazed on. She froze as the light began to travel across the broken ground of the field. It moved deliberately, inch by inch, as the man, invisible behind the bright circle of light, began to walk slowly toward them.

Lois held her breath. Beside her, Luthor's labored breathing was becoming louder and harsher. She winced, hoping that the night noises would drown out the sound.

He heard. She saw the light stop suddenly and then it moved unerringly to pin them where they crouched, like insects fastened to cardboard. Lois held up her hand to shield her eyes from the light.

The light came closer and abruptly clicked off. She blinked, trying to regain her night vision in the sudden darkness. Dimly, she saw the faint glint of starlight reflecting from metal, and realized that the barrel of a rifle was aimed directly at them.

"Stand up, Luthor." Although she still couldn't see him, the voice was familiar, and all at once Lois recalled with vivid clarity the face that she had seen in the crowd as she and Luthor had entered the Metropolitan Opera House.

Joey McPherson. He hadn't fled Metropolis after all, she thought. He must have realized that as long as the Boss was alive he would be a hunted man, and he had decided to take matters into his own hands. Once Lex Luthor was dead, the warrant on his head would undoubtedly be forgotten as the Boss's lieutenants fought each other to replace the top man.

Luthor wasn't moving and Joey nudged him sharply in the ribs with the toe of his shoe. "Get up!"

The billionaire groaned and made a feeble effort to rise. The rifle gestured at Lois. "Get up, lady. Help him up."

Lois obeyed slowly. If Joey's attention wandered even fractionally, he was going to discover why she went to Tae Kwon Do classes twice a week. If she didn't find some way out of this, she could expect to share Luthor's fate. Joey couldn't afford to let any witnesses live, no matter how little she could actually see. Not if he killed Lex Luthor.

"Help him up." Joey's voice sounded grim. Lois bent and took Luthor by the arm. He was heavier than he looked. She hauled at his arm, and supported him as he lurched unsteadily to his feet.

"Looks like my aim was better than I thought." Joey sounded surprisingly pleased. "Walk that way. Away from the road."

Lois turned slowly and as she did so she released Luthor's arm. With one foot she struck out sideways and connected with the side of Joey's knee.

But it was a glancing blow. In the darkness, she couldn't see her target clearly. Joey howled in pain and staggered sideways but he didn't fall or even drop the rifle. Lois jumped at him and grabbed the barrel of the weapon with both hands, twisting it and wrenching it free.

Joey clawed at her, trying to grab the rifle back but she swung and released it in one motion. The rifle went sailing to vanish somewhere in the dark field. Then he was on her and they tumbled to the ground. She struck at his face but although he grunted angrily when her hands connected, he straddled her waist and his hands closed around her throat.

##########

##########

Clark paused in his headlong flight to page Lois for the third time. Again he heard the distinctive beep of her pager and adjusted his course slightly. It wasn't far away, but all at once his hearing picked up the sound of a shot. A few seconds later there was a second and a third.

They came from the same general direction as the pager. He poured on the speed, straining his ears for any other sound.

The land beneath him was agricultural land: miles and miles of rolling fields that would be tilled and cultivated in a very few months, but now lay neglected, filled with weeds and the skeletons of last year's crops.

There had been no more shots, but the sounds had come from somewhere nearby. Again he punched in the pager's combination and again he heard the beeping sound, and at the same instant he spotted the long, black car parked by the side of the road.

The beeping was coming from Lois's purse, he discovered quickly. It lay on the back seat of the limousine, but there was no sign of Lois, Luthor, or his chauffeur. Clark pushed down panic.

She couldn't have gone far, he told himself. They had to be around here somewhere.

Forcing himself to concentrate, he listened, and he heard it. Lois's heartbeat, loud and clear, and with it her breathing. It was rough and ragged, as if she were exerting physical effort.

There were other heartbeats, too. Two of them. Someone swore loudly and he could clearly hear the unmistakable sounds of a struggle taking place not far away.

In a split second he was following the sounds. They were coming from a spot barely a hundred yards away; an open field that would be lush and green in the springtime. The road curved around the perimeter of an apple orchard separating the limousine from the scene of conflict. As he soared over the barren trees and the field came into view, he saw them and his panic dissolved. He nearly laughed. He should have known, he realized. His partner, as usual, had managed to handle the situation with her usual flare.

Lois was rolling to her feet, covered with mud from head to toe. Pieces of grass were sticking to every inch of her coat and the elegant gown that she had worn to dinner and the opera, but the man who had apparently been her opponent lay on the ground -- only, perhaps "lay" wasn't the operative term, he thought, pausing to survey the scene with deep appreciation. Joey McPherson was curled in an agonized ball in the icy mud, clutching a sensitive portion of his anatomy, seemingly unable to catch his breath. Beside them, Lex Luthor slumped on the ground, barely conscious.

Clark came in to a landing beside the little group, managing to keep his face straight only with a supreme effort.

"Ms. Lane," he said, in his best super-heroish voice, "you look like you could use some help. May I be of assistance?"

##########

##########

"You know," William Henderson said, in his most expressionless voice, "when I brought you into this case, I really didn't quite expect that you'd throw yourself into it literally. Mud wrestling?"

"Watch it, Henderson," Lois said. She picked straw from her hair and wiped at her face, but only succeeded in smearing the dirt a little further. Flakes of drying mud flicked off onto the carpet. "My sense of humor doesn't extend to ruined dresses and shoes. This outfit cost me nearly two hundred dollars."

Clark, still in his Superman guise, intervened hastily. "If you're finished, Inspector, I thought I'd give Ms. Lane a lift home."

"I'm finished for now." The corners of Henderson's mouth quivered infinitesimally. "And Lois ..."

She scowled at him. "Any more mud jokes and you're a dead man."

His expression dissolved into a slight smile. "After seeing Joey, I might take you seriously. Actually, I was going to say thank you ... and that I'm glad you're alive." His smile widened slightly, an expression that for Henderson was the equivalent of a broad grin. "Joey is going to be a big help, since he seems to realize that the only chance he has of surviving now is to cooperate fully. We've already got a full confession, and he was talking up a storm when I left. I have the feeling we're going to be listening to him in shifts."

"Are you sure you can protect him?" Lois asked. "I mean, if Luthor has his spies in the Department ..."

"You let the DA and me worry about that," Henderson said. "We're holding him as a material witness for the moment, but the thing Joey is really afraid of is Luthor finding out where he is. As for Luthor's tentacles in the Police Department, let's say I've recently received some new information about who to watch and it fits with what I've suspected for some time. The fellow who brought it to me said you'd vouch for him. Do you know a Bobby Bigmouth?"

Lois gaped at him and then nodded. "I certainly do. Bobby'll eat you out of house and home but he's completely reliable."

"I can handle that," Henderson said. "We have a small discretionary fund for informants and such. I'm glad to know you trust him and as a matter of fact, I owe him a Chinese dinner. Needless to say, however, he doesn't want his name connected with this thing." A corner of his mouth turned up. "Go home and get a shower, Lois. And thanks."

Lois nodded and turned toward the door. A thought made her pause and turn back. "How's Luthor doing? And any word on the chauffeur, by any chance?"

"Luthor is expected to recover," the Inspector said. "Joey came close but he wasn't a good enough shot. The bullet nicked a major blood vessel. They took him into surgery to stop the bleeding right after Superman got him to the hospital and he'll be there for a few days, but it takes more than a bullet in the shoulder to kill Luthor. We're going to have to take him down the conventional way." He shook his head. "As for the chauffeur, we found him. As far as we can tell, he wasn't involved in it. He'd been hit over the head, tied up, gagged and stuffed in a cleaning closet in the Opera House basement. He was treated and released down at the emergency room."

"Lucky for him," Superman said. "I'd hate to be in his spot if he'd had anything to do with it."

"You mean, Joey was the chauffeur after the performance -- and neither of us noticed?" Lois gave a disgusted snort. "But why didn't he just wait for us and kill us when we got out of the car? Why all the dramatics?"

"The interrogator asked him that," Henderson said. "Apparently he'd stashed the rifle in the orchard. He couldn't carry it with him for obvious reasons, and the rear windows of the limo -- and the partition itself -- are bullet proof, anyway. Luthor may be a crime boss, but he's not a fool."

"No, he isn't. He's a sociopath, who doesn't mind risking other people's lives, but he's very careful of his own," Superman said. He turned to Lois. "If you're ready, Ms. Lane ..."

"I guess I am." Lois glanced back at the Inspector. "See you later, Henderson."

"You'll be hearing from me," Henderson said. "But for the sake of my grey hairs, try to be careful, will you?"

##########

##########

"Are you warm enough?" Clark held his partner close to his chest as he flew her through the night air toward her apartment.

"More or less." Lois wiped at her face, feeling crusts of drying mud crumble under her fingers. "I wish I'd had a chance to wash the rest of this off. Things have been so busy I barely had time to grab a paper towel and get the worst of it off my face."

"We'll be back at your place in a couple of minutes," he said. "Lois, how do you suppose Bobby knew that Henderson was our contact? And how did he know Henderson was trying to figure out which cops were on Luthor's payroll? And," he added for good measure, "how did he know who they were?"

Lois shrugged and dried mud cracked and crumbled from her clothing. "Bobby somehow always knows these things, Clark. It's why he's worth a dozen ordinary informants. Sometimes I think the man's psychic." She scowled at him. "And by the way, Superman, how did you know I was in trouble? I thought we'd agreed that you'd check on me every half hour or so."

"I have a sort of sixth sense about you," he said. "Besides, I was worried. You were right, though. You handled it without my help."

The scowl disappeared. "Actually, I was awfully glad to see you," she conceded. "And besides, you flying us in the limo was the easiest way to get us all back to Metropolis at the same time."

As she spoke, they approached her fifth floor window and Lois reached out to slide it open. Clark set her carefully on the rug and stepped through after her. "I guess I'd better go and let you take your shower," he said. "Your sister will probably be back at any time."

"No she won't," Lois said. "I didn't get a chance to tell you. She's in Italy with Brian Chow until after Christmas."

His jaw dropped. "Are you kidding?"

"No." She reached up to pat his cheek. "Thanks for coming after me, Clark. Why don't you make us some tea while I get cleaned up? We haven't really had a chance to talk about what happened. Besides, I haven't had you to myself since you proposed to me last night."

His face lit up with that smile that always seemed to brighten the room. "Okay. I'll have it ready when you're done."

##########

##########

Lois spent longer in the shower than she had intended. The hot water felt unbelievably good after running around in the cold and mud for half the night. She washed her hair three times before she was satisfied and soaped every inch of her body twice. Feeling clean at last, she stepped out of the shower and toweled off while examining her face in the mirror.

Except for a small bruise on one cheek, she looked all right, she decided, and she'd picked up more than bruises at one time or another in pursuit of a story. She towel-dried her hair and combed it out, and decided that if Clark didn't like her without her makeup, he'd have to lump it.

In her bedroom, she located a set of flannel pajamas and a thick robe and completed the ensemble with the bunny slippers that Lucy had given her as a joke birthday gift two years ago. These were necessary, as her feet were scratched and bruised from the rocks and other hard or stickery objects that she had encountered in the field when she had bested Joey McPherson. Ready at last, she walked into the small living room, to find her partner reclining on his back in the air in front of the television, watching a football game, his feet propped up on nothing exactly as if he were seated on a completely substantial piece of furniture. Judging by the colors of the uniforms, she thought, it was probably the game that the Metropolis Tigers had played against whoever this evening.

"Who's winning?" she asked.

He glanced around, caught sight of her and promptly fell two feet to the rug. She hesitated. Maybe this outfit hadn't been such a good idea after all.

"Wow!" he said. "You look incredible!"

It was hardly the remark that she'd expected from him and she was momentarily struck speechless; then she began to giggle.

He got to his feet, still staring at her. "What?" he asked.

"You!" she said. "Not too many guys would think much of this outfit." An instant's doubt struck her. "You're not using your x-ray vision, are you?"

He blinked. "Of course not. I wouldn't do that. You look great, honey, honestly. I just ..." He broke off and to her surprise blushed dark red.

"You just what?" she asked, very curious now.

"Well ... It just sort of flashed through my mind that you looked really comfortable in those ... even with me here. Almost like we were already married," he explained. "You have no idea how much I've hoped that would happen, someday. Not that I don't want to see you in a few of those other outfits, like the ones at Frederick's of Hollyw --" He broke off and went even redder.

It was reassuring to know that he thought of her that way, too. "And you will," she said, "on our wedding night. In the meantime, you'll just have to put up with these."

"I can do that," he said with a grin. "How about some hot chocolate? I figured it would be more appropriate than tea at this time of night so I made a quick run to a market that I know for supplies."

"There are markets open at two-thirty in the morning?" she said, a little surprised.

"It isn't two-thirty in the morning in London," he explained. "Why don't you sit down and I'll get you a cup."

She limped over to the sofa and sat down. He frowned. "What's wrong with your feet?"

"I was running around in that field barefoot," she said.

"Oh. Let me get the hot chocolate and then I want to look at them."

"Charlie, it's nothing."

"Maybe, but a friend of mine got a splinter in his foot when I was a kid and nearly died of blood poisoning. I want to be sure your feet are okay."

He looked so worried that she gave in. "Okay."

Which was how she ended up sitting on the sofa, sipping a cup of hot chocolate while he intently examined the soles of her feet.

"You've got some splinters here," he said. "Hold still. I'm going to get them out."

"Let me finish the hot chocolate first," she said. "This is bound to hurt."

"Okay," he said. "It won't hurt, though. I'm going to chill the skin's surface first and then take them out with a pin and microscopic vision. You won't feel a thing."

"Really?" She swallowed the last of the chocolate. "What do you want me to do?"

"Lie down on your stomach," he instructed, "and just hold still."

"Not on this couch. Is it okay if I sit on the floor?"

"Sure. Just a minute while I get a blanket and pillow."

"Clark, I can --"

"I can do it," he said. A split second later he was spreading a blanket on the floor. While she was arranging herself comfortably, he whisked away and returned with a straight pin. "Okay, I've sterilized this with my heat vision. Now I'm going to chill the bottoms of your feet. Just hold still."

Five minutes later, he was dabbing each of the tiny cuts with hydrogen peroxide. "There, that should do it. I zapped each cut with a little heat vision to kill the bacteria, just for good measure. You shouldn't have any trouble."

"If I do I'll call you, Doctor Kent," she told him. "You did a 'super' job. It didn't hurt a bit."

He gave her a boost to her feet and a few seconds later all the signs of his work had disappeared. "There. Now, since it's nearly three AM, I think I'd better let you get some sleep. Is Perry expecting us in early tomorrow?"

"I called from the Precinct and told him we'd be in about one. I also phoned in the story about the attempt on the life of Metropolis's most honored philanthropist and businessman, so we're all set."

"Good." He wrapped his arms around her and for several long seconds there was no sound in the apartment. Then he let her go. "I'll be by about noon with some breakfast for both of us."

"That sounds good, but ..."

"I'll let myself out." He nodded at the window. "Good night, honey."

She slid her arms around his neck. "You don't get away from me that easily, buster. I'm tired, but I'm not sleepy yet. How about you sit with me for a little while? I'm sure we can think of something to do to pass the time."

"Are you sure you don't want to get some sleep?"

"In a little while." She tugged him down on the sofa. "I went to dinner and a show with Lex Luthor, but that was business. My sister is in Italy having the time of her life with Brian Chow, and the guy I really wanted to date is standing right here, and I'm going to make the most of it ..."

##########

##########

It was just after one o'clock in the afternoon. Perry White looked up as the elevator doors opened, in time to see the reporting team of Lane and Kent emerge. Lois was wearing flat shoes for the first time that he could ever remember, and looked absurdly petite beside the large form of her partner. It was hard to believe that the night before she had disabled a man who had tried to kill both Lex Luthor and her.

Kent held her desk chair for her as she sank into it, moving with slightly more caution than she usually did, and Perry recalled the brief explanation of her evening's activities that she had given him the night before. The look that she cast at Kent as he bent over to ask her a question made Perry raise his eyebrows. Lane and Kent? Well, there was no law against office romances, but he hoped that it wouldn't ruin a reporting partnership that was already showing signs of being one of the most successful in the history of the Planet. Still, it would be a step forward for Lois. Perry regarded Lois as his protegee and in many ways the daughter he had never had. Her happiness was important to him, and if she had finally found someone, he would be pleased.

He hadn't thought much of her relationship with Claude Chabert a few years ago. The man had been too old for her, for one thing, and in Perry's opinion, much too much of a ladies' man. He had never thought Chabert's intentions toward her were serious and whatever had happened to end the relationship had thoroughly shaken Lois. At least Kent was less than two years her senior, and seemed to be if anything, a little shy around women. Still, it was early days yet. He would reserve judgement, but he would keep his eye on them.

Jimmy Olsen crossed the office to Lois's desk as he watched and the three of them held a short conference. Lois said something that made Kent's eyebrows fly up and Jimmy nodded and made a thumbs-up gesture. For a moment Perry frowned. The gleeful expression on Olsen's face was a sure sign of trouble for someone.

Olsen turned and headed for his own small desk and Perry saw him rummaging through a drawer. He returned to Lois's desk with a sheet of paper, which he ostentatiously laid in front of Lois, and the three of them bent over it. Lois nodded and put it in the folder that Perry knew she had been using to amass her information on Superman, then made several notes on the writing pad on her desk. The three of them continued to speak for another minute, and he could almost sense the excitement in their attitudes.

What were they up to, he wondered. It boded well that Lane and Kent were so enthused about whatever Jimmy had given them. Hopefully, it would translate into a headline for the paper in the near future.

He wasn't the only one who had noticed the excitement of the Planet's top reporting team. Ralph was watching them from his favorite spot by the water cooler, and Perry sighed. Ralph was more or less a decent reporter when he was willing to put the effort into his work, but he was no Lane or Kent, and he should just stick to what he did best. Trying to do what Lane and Kent did was bound to get him into trouble. Perry was aware of the man's jealousy toward the Planet's star reporting team and their tendency to grab headlines, but not too many journalists could handle the stuff they had managed to sink their teeth into in the short time Kent had been here. He and Lois just seemed to complement each other's style in a way that led to the big stories. Like Lois, Kent must have reporting in his blood. Ralph, on the other hand ...

Well, someone needed to follow up on last night's little adventure. Hopefully, Lois had enough of an in with Lex Luthor that she could wangle an interview. He went to the door of his office and opened it. "Lane! Kent! In my office, now!"

##########

##########

"We're going to follow it up," Lois said a little belligerently. "But ..."

"An attempt on the life of Metropolis's most prominent citizen is news, Lois," Perry said. "People are going to want to know what happened. I want all the background on this material witness that Jimmy can find, and a statement from the DA ..."

"Chief, you'll get a follow-up." Clark cast a hasty glance at Lois. "It's just that we need to be careful. Joey's in danger after what happened."

"In danger?" Perry's eyebrows rose. "Why?"

"We can't talk about it," Lois said. "We promised Henderson. It will all come out eventually, and we've been guaranteed an exclusive when it does, but if we screw up what Henderson and the DA are trying to do, it could all come crashing down. We'll do a general follow-up but any specifics on Joey have to be kept out of it."

"I don't suppose this has anything to do with that business corruption deal you were talking about?" Perry raised an eyebrow at them.

"Yes, it does," Lois said. "And you still don't want to know about it, Chief. It's not safe." She glanced at Clark. "Besides, we have an appointment to interview Superman again, and we don't want to be late."

Perry sat up straight. "Why didn't you say so? Get goin'!"

"On our way." Clark opened the door for his partner and Lois breathed a sigh of relief. Clark looked down at her as they left their editor's office and the door swung shut behind them. "Where do you want to go for this interview?"

"Your place," Lois said as they headed for the elevator. "Besides," she added, keeping her voice low, "we need to get out of here to give Ralph his chance. And then we might see if Luthor's official spokesperson has any comment about last night."

"Two to one he'll tell you that 'Mr. Luthor is resting comfortably'."

"Which gives us no information at all but we can't expect anything more than that," Lois said. "We'll just have to write something about how 'Mr. Luthor' is expected to make a full recovery and the police are investigating or something like that. I'll get hold of Henderson for an official statement, but for now, the less said, the better."

"That's for sure," Clark said. He rang for the elevator. "This investigation isn't going to be over for a while yet, but it definitely got a big boost last night. We'll ..." He broke off, raising his head. "Oh oh."

"Let's go," Lois said at once. "The interview can wait for a little while."

Together, they ducked through the door to the stairs.

##########

##########

The morning edition of the Daily Planet lay on Lois's desk. The headline read: "He's Here to Help" by Lois Lane and Clark Kent, and splashed across the front page was a spectacular photo of Superman holding up the front end of an eighteen wheeler with one hand as emergency workers cut the occupants of a small car free of the twisted mass of metal that had been their vehicle a short time before.

Below was a vivid account of the rescue by Lane and Kent, and beside it, an exclusive interview with Superman, by Lois Lane. Perry White tapped the paper with one finger. "This is great, kids. I had a feeling about the two of you when I partnered you up. Glad to see I was right."

"This is nothing, Chief," Lois said. "Before we're done, we're going to be the hottest team in town. Wait and see."

Their editor grinned. "I'm glad to see that a lack of confidence isn't going to get in your way. You two keep this up, and I might have to agree with you." He clapped Clark on the back. "Good work, both of you."

As the editor headed back toward his office, Jimmy picked up the paper. "I like the quote," he said. "'Let there be no mistake. Metropolis is my home now. I'm here to stay.' That should make life interesting."

"Speaking of interesting," Lois asked. "Did Ralph bite?"

Jimmy shrugged, and the expression of wide-eyed innocence on his face almost made Clark laugh. After all, this scheme had been Jimmy's idea to begin with, albeit with wholehearted cooperation by Lois and himself. "Well, he wandered over to your desk a little while after you left. I didn't dare watch him too closely, but before he took off last night he was bragging about having a big surprise for us today, so I think he might have. I haven't seen any sign of him so far this morning."

"He's probably still wandering around the sewage reclamation facility, looking for Superman's ship," Lois said. "I was there once a few years ago, and I can promise you it's easy to get thoroughly lost there. With luck, he'll be scratching mosquito bites for several days."

Jimmy snorted. "Maybe it'll teach him something about ethics."

As he spoke the elevator doors opened. Ralph Finkelstein stepped out and it was immediately apparent to Clark that he was not happy. His clothing was filthy and stained and he was carrying a dirty, plastic bag in one hand.

Clark's sensitive nose picked up the smell long before any of his colleagues did. Ralph came down the ramp with a purposeful stride, straight toward Lois's desk. Clark straightened up. The expression on Ralph's face bordered on the murderous, and if he was angry enough to do anything stupid, Clark wanted to be ready to intercept him.

Ralph marched up to Lois's desk and slapped the item he was carrying onto its surface.

"I hope you got a good laugh out of this," he snarled, "because it wasn't funny!"

Lois stared at him, the picture of outraged innocence. "What the devil are you talking about?" she demanded. "Get that thing off my desk!"

"You know damned well what I'm talking about!" Ralph seemed oblivious to the fact that everyone in the newsroom was staring at him, and the pitch of his voice rose to a near-hysterical falsetto. Even Perry had paused in the door of his office to watch. He ripped open the plastic bag to produce an object, which he shoved within an inch of Lois's nose. It was a plastic Godzilla doll with a red "S" painted on the chest. "It wasn't funny!"

Clark grinned. "Oh, I don't know, Finkelstein," he drawled. "It looks pretty funny to me."

Jimmy underlined the comment with a cough that sounded suspiciously like a laugh.

Ralph turned to glare at him. "You were both in this," he said. "Just wait, Kent. You're going to be sorry."

"I wouldn't," Clark said. He let his grin diminish until it was only the faintest of smiles. "If you brought that back, then I know where you got it, and there's only one way you would have found it. And after all, we didn't mean anything by it. We were just joking."

Ralph opened his mouth to speak but Perry's voice cut across whatever he had been about to say. "What's goin' on here?"

"Nothing, Chief," Lois said, looking straight at Ralph. "We were just having a little discussion. Right, Ralph?"

Ralph glared at her, closed his mouth and nodded. "That's right. A little discussion."

"Hmm." Perry looked sharply at Lois and back at Ralph. "Well, go get cleaned up. You smell to high heaven." He turned and headed back toward his office. As the door closed behind him, Clark heard his boss laugh.

"You really do smell, Ralph," Lois said, kindly. "You'd better do what Perry said. And next time, keep your hands off my Superman folder. You never know what you might find in it."

Ralph continued to stare at his three colleagues for the space of twenty seconds, then he appeared to wilt. Without a word, he turned and shuffled toward the elevator.

##########

##########

Epilogue

Lex Luthor reclined in the luxurious king-sized bed in his penthouse apartment of LexTower. His bandaged shoulder throbbed dully, and he glanced at the clock by his bedside table, mentally counting the moments until it was safe to take another dose of the pain medication that the doctor had prescribed for him.

It would be only a few minutes. He lay back against the mound of pillows and glanced at the morning edition of the Daily Planet that lay on the table's surface.

Lois had scored her interview, as she had told him she would. The woman was remarkable -- incredible. Never before had he met someone like her. She was beautiful -- perhaps not so beautiful as some of the lovelies with whom he had associated in the past, but the character in her face, in her every expression, made up for that and more.

She had saved his life.

He was very glad now that his assassin had not succeeded in killing Lois Lane. If he had, Luthor would have missed the opportunity of meeting this astounding woman. She attracted him as no other woman ever had in the past, with her intelligence, her drive, her character, her beauty and her spirit. Lois Lane was a prize worth winning, and he intended to win her. She might be a little too independent to suit him completely, but given time he could probably manage to bring that under control. It was a challenge worthy of him, and the reward would be worth it. It would add spice to the chase, in any event.

Making up his mind, he pushed the call button beside his bed. A moment later, Nigel St. John entered. "You wished to see me, sir?"

"Yes," Luthor said. "Has there been any progress?"

"No, sir. Apparently the police are holding someone as a material witness, but our people haven't been able to identify this person."

Luthor frowned. "I trust you haven't given up."

"No, sir."

"Good. Now, I believe you told me that Ms. Lane's clothing was ruined after the events of night before last. I want you to replace it. And send a bouquet of two dozen red roses to her at her office."

"Very well, sir. Do you wish to send a card?"

"Yes. Bring it to me so that I can write her a private message. See to it personally, Nigel."

"Yes sir. Will that be all, sir?"

"There's the matter of Joey. Has he been found?"

"No, sir." He couldn't read Nigel's expression. "All we're sure of is that he hasn't left town."

"When he reappears he's to be given no more chances. Dispose of him ... but I want him thoroughly questioned first. If he has any knowledge of the diary, I want to know what it is."

"It will be done, sir."

"Has there been any progress on that other problem?"

"No, sir. The boys have apparently gone to ground, somewhere. All of our people are looking for them. As soon as one of them surfaces, we'll be notified."

"And the diary?"

"No sign of it at all, sir. It may be considered too hot to handle."

"Keep looking, Nigel. If the boys have it, all to the good. If someone else has it and is holding onto it for insurance, find him and dispose of him. I want it back."

"Yes, sir," Nigel said.

Luthor leaned his head back against the pillow. "Send the nurse in when you leave."

"At once, sir." Nigel inclined his head slightly, turned and silently left the room.

The End

(To be continued in the next story. Stay tuned.)