By Nan Smith
Clark Kent switched off the news. He knew Superman should be listening to the broadcast, keeping alert for problems that he could assist the authorities in solving, but the anchors were reporting all too frequently on the upcoming nuptials of Lex Luthor, Metropolis's most prominent citizen, to Lois Lane, well-known investigative reporter for the Daily Planet, the world-wide newspaper whose headquarters had been destroyed by a bomber three months ago today.
He flopped down on the couch and stared at the ceiling. Today, the world was just going to have to take care of itself. Superman was on strike. He wasn't sure that he would ever wear the red and blue costume again.
He and Lois had just had their umpteenth fruitless argument where he accused her of blindness and she had accused him of jealousy. He had stormed off, leaving her angry and nearly in tears, but for once he wasn't going to cave in. Why Lois Lane's tears should bother him when she had taken his declaration of love and trampled it into the dirt he didn't understand, but they did -- only just this once he wasn't going to let her know that despite the way she had treated him, he still cared. He cared a lot.
Still, the investigation was progressing, and with Perry, Jack and Jimmy on his team, he shouldn't be worried. But he was. Lois's wedding was barely two days off now, and he was deathly afraid they wouldn't be in time to prevent it.
That part, he was fully determined on -- bringing Luthor to justice was something that he had worked on for months and it looked as if it might finally be within his grasp. The billionaire had descended to some fairly obvious tactics to destroy the Planet, and thereby Lois's support structure, and this time the trail he had left was not obliterated quite fast enough to cover his tracks. He had tried to pin the crime on Jack, but he had reckoned without Jack's realizing that someone in the juvenile facility was there specifically to get rid of him, and the boy's subsequent escape. Jimmy and Jack were now hot on the trail of John Black, who might very well supply the missing link that could bring Lex Luthor down for good.
In a way, he was looking forward to presenting his evidence to Henderson and being present when Luthor was arrested. The expression on Lois's face would be worth it when she realized that Clark Kent, the know-nothing hick farmboy from Kansas, had been right all along, and that she, the ace reporter for the Daily Planet had been completely blind. And she couldn't even say that he had tried to leave her out of the loop. He'd told her countless times, but she had chosen to disbelieve him.
That had hurt, and his triumph would be sweet, but underneath he knew that he wasn't going to enjoy it nearly as much as he should. Yes, he would enjoy Luthor's downfall, but Lois's humiliation and pain he knew quite well that he wouldn't enjoy. It was infuriating when he let himself think about it, to know that in spite of the way she had crushed his love for her underfoot, he wouldn't appreciate her comeuppance. He couldn't. Lois meant too much to him, and in spite of her utterly exasperating and frequently callous behavior, especially where his feelings were concerned, he didn't want to hurt her.
But, of course, he had little choice at this point. If he let her marry Lex Luthor, he would be to blame for much more pain and misery for her down the road. Better to rip off the bandage now and expose the corruption underneath than to do nothing and let her marry the man -- and possibly find out disastrously later. But he didn't have to like it.
Suddenly, the confines of his apartment were smothering him. He had to get out, away from everything that reminded him of his last months at the Daily Planet and his partnership with Lois Lane. Why on Earth was he still tearing himself apart over what couldn't be? She had made it abundantly clear where he stood. Whether or not she married Luthor -- which he wasn't going to permit if he had to swoop down and carry her off from the church door -- Clark Kent stood no chance of being part of Lois Lane's future except in the position of friend and work partner: a thoroughly anemic shadow of what he really wanted. Unless he somehow changed the dynamics of the whole situation.
Well, why not? What did he have to lose at this point? He had two days. If they hadn't found their proof by then, he was going to have to go for broke.
He left the apartment, locking the door behind him. The phone rang as he half ran down the steps, but he ignored it, letting the telephone answering machine take the message, and began to walk. He didn't know where he intended to go, nor did he really care, but staying in the apartment was more than he could stand. He shoved his hands in his pockets as he strode along, scowling deeply. Exactly how he was going to do this he wasn't sure, but he had two days to decide. After that, if Lois still wouldn't listen -- well, there were several small, uninhabited islands that he knew of in tropical waters, where she could stay until he had his proof. Kidnapping might be a bit extreme, but if that was what it took to save her from the most disastrous mistake of her life, he was ready to take the consequences. She would never forgive him, of course, but why should he let that stop him? He was at the point where there was nothing left to lose.
Of course, he admitted unhappily, he couldn't escape some of the blame for the situation. If he hadn't been so angry the day she had rejected his declaration and then turned around and asked him to find Superman ...
He'd been heartbroken and furious at her, and had wanted to hurt her like she had hurt him. He should have known better, but he'd let his emotions get the better of him and by the time he'd realized his mistake, Lois had accepted Luthor's proposal and it was too late.
Only he wouldn't let it be too late, at least to save Lois from a man who would destroy her -- perhaps not physically, but certainly he would destroy the spirit that made Lois the unique person that she was. Clark had already seen her change from the independent woman he had known to an uncertain, shaken woman looking for some kind of anchor to cling to. Since Superman had rejected her she had turned to Luthor -- just as Clark suspected now that the man had schemed to arrange all along -- and it was partly his fault. But at least he could still make some repairs. If the tangle couldn't be unraveled, the only way out was to cut it. He would have to wait until the last second, but if worst came to worst, cut it he would.
The decision made, some of his inner turmoil quieted and he glanced around, a little surprised. His aimless walk had taken him to the ruins of the Daily Planet, and he stood looking at the figurative ruins of his life. One bomb, for which Luthor had framed Jack, and the billionaire had shattered the lives of how many people? Was this the pattern of Luthor's life? Destruction, ruin and chaos for the little people who didn't matter, all so that Luthor could achieve his goals. And how long would it be before he had done the same to the beautiful woman that he intended to marry? -- a woman for whom Clark would have been willing to give anything.
Probably not long. Lois would inevitably find out and react with her usual exquisite tact, he reflected with a certain grim humor. And since Luthor held all the cards, the results would not be good for Lois. No, he really had no choice but to act. Lois might be stubborn, maddeningly pig-headed and insensitive to her partner's feelings, but there was no way he was going to let her go through with this, even if she killed him later. She might be Mad Dog Lane, but he had a few things going for him that she didn't. He was a lot stronger than she was, and he could fly.
Okay, that was two things, but nobody was counting except him, and with Lois he was going to need every advantage he could get. She was bound to be annoyed with Superman right now, too -- especially after the way he had treated her that night in her apartment. Clark winced now at what he had said. He had been angry, but that had been unnecessary and cruel. He could have let her down a little more gently. In fact, he could have told her about Luthor if he'd been thinking of other things than his hurt feelings. Well, it was time to set his hurt feelings aside. Lois had never given him any reason to hope, and she was legendary for the way she dismissed the feelings of others. Why should he have expected anything else?
Because he was her partner and, he'd thought, her friend. Obviously their friendship wasn't as deep on her side as his. He was going to have to accept that and live with it, but he couldn't let Luthor destroy her because he, Clark Kent, couldn't act like an adult. Lois's life was more important than anything else right now. He could say his good-byes later, after this was all over, after Luthor was under arrest and Lois was safe and free.
Then he would decide whether he ever wanted to be Superman again.
Lois Lane slammed down the phone after she'd got Clark's phone message for the third time. Either he wasn't there or he was ignoring her calls, which wouldn't surprise her in the least. He'd been acting like a sulky child ever since she'd accepted Lex's offer of marriage. Well, before that, actually.
Why couldn't he respect her choice and remain her friend? Instead, he stubbornly insisted that Lex was a criminal of hideous proportions and that she was blind to his faults -- but he'd offered no proof. He'd said she should take his word for it -- no, he'd told her to investigate, and she had. And everything Clark had said had been disproven -- or if not disproven, at least nothing he'd said had panned out.
What was she supposed to think? After his declaration to her, it was so obvious that his accusations sprang from jealousy that they weren't worth her consideration.
Still, she'd wanted him to come to her wedding. She'd wanted Perry and Clark and Jimmy there, but Alice had told her that Perry had gone fishing, and Jimmy had completely vanished. According to his landlord, he'd been unable to pay his rent. And Clark had told her flatly that he had no intention of coming to see her married to a monster.
"He's a liar, a thief and a murderer so many times over that I couldn't begin to count," he'd said heatedly, "and you expect me to come and be happy for you? I might be happy if you were marrying a decent man, but Lex Luthor? I'm sorry, Lois. I won't be at your wedding." And he'd walked away.
"What's wrong, my dear?" Behind her, Lex's voice, smooth and cultured as always, interrupted her thoughts.
"Oh, nothing really." Lois turned to face him. "Clark and I had another argument, and now he's not answering my calls."
"I see," Lex said. "I wonder if he would be willing to listen to me?"
She shook her head. "I don't think so."
Lex smiled. "You never know. I know Mr. Kent's opinion of me, Lois. He disapproves of my wealth and success. I think I offend Mr. Kent's Midwestern upbringing."
Lois could feel her face burning. "Lex --"
"I long ago stopped worrying about people's opinions of me," he said. "Let me try. What harm can it do?"
"I suppose," she said. "Clark can be hard-headed at times."
"Well, the worst I can do is fail." Lex put an arm around her. "Have faith in me, my dear. If it makes you happy, it's important to me, too, you know."
"All right," Lois said. "I suppose it can't hurt to try."
When Clark returned to his apartment, he discovered that Perry White, Jack and Jimmy had arrived. He could smell the aroma of one of Perry's culinary masterpieces simmering on the stove, so apparently his partners in the Luthor offensive had finished their work for the day.
Involuntarily, he glanced at the telephone answering machine, whose light was blinking, and at the indicator that showed he had three messages. He punched the "play" button, but stopped the playback as Lois's voice emerged, demanding that he pick up the phone. He didn't want to listen to her right now any more than she had been willing to listen to him a little while ago. Lois had it stuck firmly in her head that because he was (admittedly) jealous of Lex Luthor, everything he said about the man could be dismissed as irrelevant. Sometimes he thought that she didn't want to see Luthor's failings for some strange reason or other. Was it just because she couldn't admit that her judgement might be in error, or was there some other reason? In any case, it didn't matter at this point. Lois was bound and determined to become the wife of one of the worst crime figures in current history, and somehow he had to stop her and damn the consequences!
Jack emerged from the kitchen, a bottle of soda in one hand and a sandwich in the other. He didn't glance at the phone. "Hi, Clark. Come get some dinner. Perry's been cooking, and Jimmy and I can take only so much Cajun cuisine. You and Perry seem to be the only ones who can handle it." He sat down next to the telephone table and parked his bottle on it.
Clark smiled in sympathy, raising his eyebrows at the sight of the sandwich, which was now oozing grape jelly. "Peanut butter and jelly?"
"Yeah." Jack licked away the stray jelly before it could drip and took an enormous bite. "I had to do something to stop the indigestion, and you're out of antacids," he said, rather thickly through the mouthful. "I figured bread was pretty thick, and peanut butter and jelly couldn't hurt." He chewed and swallowed convulsively.
Clark couldn't help smiling. He'd tasted Perry's cooking at the company barbecue. His boss's barbecued ribs were the only food he had ever encountered that could rival Jonathan Kent's extra spicy chicken. "I'll give it a try. Any luck so far?"
"We think so. It seems the Planet board originally voted not to sell to Luthor. Then, suddenly, they all changed their minds. They're all also driving new Ferraris."
"Why isn't this a surprise," Clark said.
"And," Jack continued, "Jimmy found the pool hall where John Black hangs out and spread the word that we might have a job for him. Now all we have to do is set him up. We're supposed to go back later tonight to talk to him."
"That's great," Clark said. He turned to head for the kitchen where he could hear Jimmy's voice, strangely muffled, speaking.
"Chief, my stomach's not cast iron. That stuff should be served with a fire extinguisher on the side."
Perry laughed. "You kids today are too soft for your own good."
"Chief," Jimmy's voice protested, "you could use this stuff to take the enamel off teeth!"
"I thought I heard the door." Perry emerged from the kitchen trailing the aroma of spice and exotic seasonings. Clark could smell the cayenne pepper in the air. "Ah, there you are, Clark. Come on in and get some dinner."
"Smells good," Clark said. He hesitated. "Jack tells me you've made some progress."
Perry nodded. "Turns out there was additional insurance on the Daily Planet building through a subsidiary of LexCorp -- called Lexel Investments. Now all I have to do is find out how much. How'd you do?"
"Like I said on the phone earlier," Clark said, "Just about every criminal element in the city pays protection money to a shadowy character they call 'The Boss'. Most of them have no idea who he is, and the ones who might are too terrified to talk. If Luthor first manipulated the Board to sell the Planet to him, then burned it down to collect the insurance ... what if 'The Boss' is actually Lex Luthor?"
"That would sure explain a lot," Perry said. He glanced past Clark at Jack. "You and Jimmy better get going, kid. Time's gettin' short."
"Yeah," Jack said. Clark looked over his shoulder as the boy shoved the remainder of the sandwich into his mouth and reached out for the soda bottle.
As he grasped the bottle and picked it up, preparing to take a swallow, the bottle slipped and fell, striking the edge of the table and dousing the telephone answering machine with its sticky contents. Jack grabbed frantically for it and righted it.
"Oops, sorry," he said. "I'll clean it up." He got hastily to his feet. "I think only a little got on the rug."
Clark stepped into the kitchen to retrieve the paper towels for Jack's cleanup efforts, reflecting that it was just as well. He didn't want to listen to Lois's accusing voice demanding that he pick up the phone. Later tonight, when he could slip away, he intended to fly home to see his parents. A talk with them might help him to decide what he should do. His father was pretty good at listening and helping him to talk out a problem, and his mother's questions always made him think more clearly. He had until the day after tomorrow to make up his mind. Then, if they didn't have the proof ... well, then he would do something. What he wasn't quite sure, but there was no force on Earth that could convince him to let Lois go through with this marriage. Whatever he decided, the responsibility would be on his shoulders. He'd made the mistake that had driven Lois to do such a crazy thing. She had dived in again without checking the water level, and it was up to him to make sure she didn't hit the bottom of the pool. Very likely it would be the very last feat Superman would perform, anyway. Without Lois to give him the courage to go on, his heart wasn't in it. Maybe he could get a job with the Borneo Gazette again, he thought unhappily. Then he would never have to see her again, and wouldn't have the short year that she had driven him crazy constantly rubbed in his face. It wasn't as if the people there would have any reason to connect him with Superman, after all.
"I'm sorry, Lex." The tall, elegant black woman put down the phone for the fourth time. "No one answers."
Lex Luthor struck the surface of his desk with one fist. "Where is he? The one time I actually need to get hold of Lois's pathetic partner, and he seems to have vanished."
Mrs. Cox shrugged. "Our people have tried to follow Mr. Kent a number of times, Lex. He seems extraordinarily capable of losing a tail. The last our man saw of him was when he left his apartment, last night. He took a shortcut through the park. Our man followed him, of course. He swears he was never out of sight of Kent until he went through a stand of trees. Our man hurried to catch up, but when he entered the trees less than a minute later, there was no sign of Kent. He continued on to the other side, but Kent was gone."
"And he hasn't come back?"
"Our man returned to watch the place last night, and Kent didn't come home. Several other persons came and went during that time, but Mr. Kent wasn't one of them."
"No one has seen him since night before last," Mrs. Cox reported.
"Any reports of disasters around the world?"
"Minor ones, sir," Mrs. Cox said. "Superman didn't appear at any of them."
"Hmm." Luthor drummed his fingers on the polished surface of the desk. "Well, it's awkward but not insurmountable. He's bound to show up eventually, and so is Kent. Make sure all our people are aware that Kent is my first priority. He's the only certain route to Superman. When he reappears, I want to know it at once."
"Of course, Lex," Mrs. Cox purred. "Series K will be just as useful after the wedding as before. It's simply a matter of being able to maneuver Superman into the right position. I'm sure you'll be able to manage it. I have every faith in you."
"Very wise of you, Mrs. Cox," Lex said. "It's always wise to back a proven winner. In the meantime, be certain that the door to the wine cellar is locked. I want no one but you and I to catch a glimpse of our masterpiece. Especially not my bride-to-be."
"Naturally," Mrs. Cox said. Luthor ran his gaze over her, admiring the woman's sinuous body. He collected works of art, both animate and inanimate, and his personal assistant was certainly a work of art in all respects, from her exotic beauty to her highly intelligent and coolly ruthless mind, and the way she efficiently handled all his wants and needs. He got to his feet.
"Come, Mrs. Cox. I believe we had some unfinished business of a more personal nature."
"Of course, Lex," she murmured. "But what about your bride?"
"Lois needn't trouble you," he replied. "It isn't necessary that she know anything about our relationship." He removed a thin, silver key from a desk drawer and gestured to an unobtrusive side door of his office, which was always locked. "After you, Mrs. Cox."
Perry glanced at the telephone when it rang for the fourth time. Clark's now-defunct telephone answering machine was unable to act as a screening device, so no one answered the call. Jack peeked between the curtains and glanced back at his boss. "The guy is still out there. Looks like he's waiting for something."
"Well, since he's outside Clark's place, I imagine he's looking for Clark," Perry said.
"Yeah," Jimmy said, "but why doesn't he just knock?"
"That's a good question, and it kinda worries me," Perry said. "The only person I can think of that might be watching Clark is Luthor."
"What would Luthor want with Clark?" Jimmy asked.
"That's what bothers me," Perry said. "He's Lois's old partner, and he's been the one spearheading this thing. I hope word of what we're doing hasn't filtered back to Luthor, but even if it hasn't, if what we think is true -- about him bein' 'The Boss' -- he didn't get where he is by bein' soft."
"What do you mean?" Jimmy asked.
"He means that Luthor probably would like to get rid of Clark. He's ruined practically everything else that Lois cared about," Jack said bluntly. "He tried to have me killed, probably just to cover his tracks. I can't see him leaving Clark alone, can you? Or even you and Perry."
Jimmy gulped. "We need to get this stuff to Henderson."
"Oh, I agree," Perry said. "I'd like to wait for Clark, but time's running out. The wedding is tomorrow. Henderson is gonna have to have some time to check out the tapes and the rest of the evidence." He found himself dithering, an activity he always detested when others did it. "Okay, I'm gonna call Henderson and tell him you're on your way. Can you go out the back window, kid?"
"Sure," Jack said. "No sweat."
"Don't get caught," Perry said.
"Not a chance," Jack said. "Come on, Jim. You can give me a boost."
"I'm coming with you," Jimmy said.
"Good idea." Perry hesitated, then slipped a hand in his pocket and produced his cell phone. "Take this. If you run into any trouble, call 911."
"Right," Jimmy said. He took the device and tucked it into a pocket. "Let's go, Jack. The sooner we get this to Henderson the quicker you're off the hook too."
"Gee, that never occurred to me," Jack said.
Clark sat cross-legged on the roof of LexTower. He wasn't wearing his Superman suit. Instead he was dressed in the drab, nondescript clothing of a maintenance man. It wasn't likely that anyone would see him sitting here, but on the off chance that a newscopter might cruise past, or that someone with a set of binoculars happened to be looking in the direction of LexTower, he didn't want anyone to notice Superman sitting here. Besides, technically, he was in his Clark Kent mode. Investigative reporter, very much on duty.
Going home to consult his mother and father had been more productive than even he could have predicted. They had listened to him vent his frustrations and his determination to stop Lois from marrying Luthor, no matter what it took, and when he had finished, Jonathan Kent said, "So, the four of you are in the process of finding evidence that Luthor was behind the bombing of the Planet, right?"
Clark nodded. "It's there, Dad. All we need to do is tie up the loose ends and we've got him. The trouble is that it may not be in time to stop the wedding."
"And Lois won't listen to you at all?" Martha asked.
He shook his head in frustration. "She thinks I'm accusing Luthor of all this stuff because I'm jealous."
"Well," his mother pointed out, "you are jealous."
"Of course I am. But I'd never say things like that about anyone unless they were true. I thought Lois knew that."
"Maybe she does, somewhere underneath," Martha said. "It sounds to me like she's in a state of denial."
"Please Mom, not more psychology," he said. "I need to figure out what to do."
"A little psychology in the right place is pretty helpful," she said. "I think Lois won't listen to you about Luthor because she doesn't want to."
"I don't know," Martha said. "If she listened to you, what would she be admitting?"
"That her best friend was worth trusting?"
"No, honey, think of it in relation to her. She's not thinking about you. She's got some reason for refusing to listen. What would it say about her if you're right and she's wrong?"
He hadn't thought of it that way before. In spite of her abrasive, aggressive manner, the time they had been held prisoner by Antoinette Baines had been a revelation to him. Lois had told him about Claude. She'd thought she was in love with him, and it had apparently been pretty shattering to realize that he had used her crush and played on her emotions in order to steal her award-winning story. She'd also said something about how getting involved in her stories, jumping in without checking the water level was the only way she knew to get the story, and with it the respect she wanted and deserved.
"It would say," he said slowly, listening to his own careful words, "that she'd have to admit that her judgement in her choice of men was faulty. It would be humiliating to find out she was wrong again -- especially since Luthor is the image of the wealthy philanthropist, and he apparently wants her pretty badly."
"She'd be humiliated," Martha said. "Would that matter to her?"
He nodded. "Lois feels like she's always fighting for respect," he said slowly. "She puts on this attitude that she's better and smarter than anybody else, but I think that she's not really sure of it underneath. I think Luthor played on that to maneuver her into agreeing to marry him. And I didn't help by turning her down as Superman."
"So what you're fighting here isn't her reasoning ability," Martha said. "Lois is protecting herself as much as anything. I don't think she's likely to listen to anything you say if you just appeal to her emotions. What would she listen to?"
"Proof," Clark said bleakly.
"I don't know! She's good at rationalizing why something she wants to do is okay, even when we both know it isn't! I just don't know how to get through."
"But Lois is a smart woman," Jonathan said slowly. "If she has a good reason to listen to you, wouldn't she?"
"Maybe," Clark said. "If she can somehow get past the idea that I'm just jealous."
"Is there some way you could get her thinking about this from another angle?" Martha asked. "Maybe convince her to investigate him, even if it's just to prove to herself that you're wrong? Or maybe some way that she can save face?"
"You know her better than anybody," his mother said. "If you were in her place, what would you listen to?"
And that had set him thinking. He stood up. "I have to get back. Thanks for letting me talk to you. I might have an idea."
"That's what we're here for," Jonathan said. "Bye, son."
Clark had taken off for Metropolis, but while he flew, he was busy considering and discarding ideas. Finally, he settled on one, and it required a visit to a novelty shop in Metropolis, but now it was set up, and judging by the conversation he had just overheard, he just might have what he needed. A little more incriminating conversation, and then he would find Lois. He hadn't been Lois Lane's partner for nearly a year without learning a few things. And if she refused to listen, well, he was still stronger, and he could still fly ...
"Good night, Lex," Lois said, lifting her face to be kissed. "It was a lovely evening."
"One of many to come," her fiance said. "After tomorrow, you can attend the opera every evening if you wish."
She laughed a little, reaching inside the door of her apartment to snap on the light. "I think it would get boring if I did it every evening." She hesitated. "Lex, could you do me a favor?"
"Anything, my love."
"If I'm going to be working for LNN in a position of responsibility, my staff needs to let me know when there's an important decision to be made, not just assume that I don't want to be bothered."
"Of course they do," Lex said. "Did something happen to upset you?"
"I wanted to check the background research on a couple of the stories that we were presenting this evening, and no one even thought to call me, even though I'd told them I wanted to review them before they went on the air. When I called my secretary she said there were standing orders not to disturb me with details." She looked up into his concerned face. "Lex, this is my job. If I'm not to be bothered with details, I can't do it right. It makes me feel like they don't really need me there -- that I'm --" She paused, searching for the word. "-- Window dressing."
Lex smiled. "I'm sure it was just a lack of communication, but I'll let Mrs. Cox know. She'll make certain it won't happen again."
"All right." Lex would take care of the problem, she was sure, but somewhere beneath the assurance she was uneasy. How many times would she need to go to Lex to request that he use his authority to be sure her subordinates understood who was in charge? If she had to rely on him to reinforce her orders, it didn't seem that she actually had any authority at all.
No, she told herself. It was just a case of the staff getting used to a new boss. Things would smooth themselves out in time.
Lex turned and made his way down the hall. Lois stepped inside and closed the door.
She had turned the third lock when the knowledge descended on her that she wasn't alone. She spun.
Clark was sitting quietly in an armchair, just out of the line of sight of anyone standing in the doorway.
"Clark!" she said. "What are you doing here?"
"Waiting for you," he said. "I needed to talk to you."
"What about? Especially," she added, "when you wouldn't even answer my calls yesterday."
"I was out," Clark said.
"Then why didn't you call me after you got back?"
"I didn't want to fight with you anymore," Clark said.
"So you show up here at this hour, just to talk?" Lois demanded. "You're not going to start in on Lex again, are you? Because I'm telling you right now that I'm not going to listen."
"Not exactly," Clark said. "I wanted to talk to you where no one could overhear us."
"Like Lex is going to be spying on me or something?"
"Actually, that was part of it. Take a look at what I found while I was waiting for you."
"What?" she demanded. "You searched my apartment?"
"Only for these." He set several small items on the table. "I found one on your phone, one attached to the bottom of your coffee table, one in the kitchen, one in your bedroom and one in your bathroom. They're surveillance devices."
"Microphones, to be exact," Clark said.
"But who would --"
"You tell me, Lois."
Lois stared at the tiny microphones, her head whirling. "You don't think Lex would spy on me! It could be anyone! The National Whisper would love to get some kind of story about Lex and me right now!"
"Fortunately," Clark said dryly, "that's not everything. You told me I had no proof about him. Well, try listening to this." He held out a tiny cassette. "It's a recording of several conversations between Luthor and his assistant -- a Mrs. Cox -- in Luthor's office."
Lois stared at him in outrage. "You bugged Lex's office?"
"Actually, Superman did it for me," Clark said. "Why not, Lois? I'm an investigative reporter, remember? Who told me that I needed proof? It's what you would do in my place."
Through her anger, she seized on one word. "Superman! Why was he helping you?"
"Because he's afraid for you. He knows what Luthor is."
"What is this? He doesn't care enough about me to ..." She broke off before she admitted more to her former partner than she wanted him to know. "But he wants to stop my wedding? What gave him the right to do that?"
"Nothing," Clark said quietly. "Except that he cares more about you than you think." He set the cassette on the coffee table next to the microphones and stood up. "All I ask is for you to listen to the tape. If you still want to marry him after you hear what he had to say, you're not the person I think you are." He strode to the door.
"Where are you going?"
"Home. Maybe we can talk again after you listen to the tape. Good night, Lois." He opened the door and went out. The door clicked shut behind him.
Lois looked at the little pile of microphones and the tiny cassette that lay beside them.
Clark had broken into her apartment to bring her that tape, and had searched the place while she wasn't here. He had some nerve doing a thing like that. She should call the police and have him arrested for breaking and entering!
Only, of course, she didn't even have any evidence that he'd done so. The door hadn't been forced, and looking around she had to concede that Clark hadn't left any sign of entry. She'd obviously taught him better than she had realized at the time. But if he thought she was going to listen to some trumped up recording just because he'd given it to her and claimed it was a recording of Lex, he'd better think again!
Quickly, before she could debate it further, she gathered up the microphones and the cassette, walked to the kitchen and tossed them into the trash can. There. That settled that. She didn't need proof to know that her fiance wasn't -- couldn't be -- what Clark claimed.
Without a backward glance, she went into her bedroom and began to pull off her evening dress.
But the tape nagged at her. It was there, and there was something on it. The thought made her a little uneasy. It was temptation, sitting there in her kitchen, pricking at her curiosity.
She wasn't going to give in to curiosity this time. If she didn't have enough faith in Lex to trust him without proof, she wouldn't have agreed to marry him. Would she?
'Maybe,' a little voice in the back of her mind whispered softly, 'you don't want to listen because you're afraid of what you'll find out.'
'That's ridiculous,' she scoffed. 'I know everything I need to know about Lex. I know he's cultured and intelligent, and one of the greatest philanthropists in the world. I know he supplies jobs to thousands of people. I know he's not perfect, but no one is, not even Superman. What could possibly be on there that would make me change my mind about marrying him?'
She was halfway to the kitchen before she made herself stop and return to the bedroom. She wasn't going to think about this any more. She was going to go to bed and get a good night's sleep so she could look her best at the ceremony tomorrow afternoon. She was just going to forget about the blasted tape!
An hour later, she was gritting her teeth in frustration, and wide awake.
All right, that was it! She sat up in bed. If she flushed the tape down the toilet then she wouldn't be wondering about it anymore. It would be beyond her reach. Quickly, she got out of bed and made her way to the kitchen.
The tape was still sitting in the trashcan on top of the little pile of broken microphones. Lois picked it up and headed toward the bathroom.
She was in the doorway when she stopped, irresolute, staring at the tape. This was crazy! What was she doing? Why shouldn't she listen to the tape? If she trusted Lex, what difference could it possibly make?
"All right!" she said aloud. "But if this is a scam, Clark Kent, you're history!"
She spun on her heel and marched into the living room. Her tape recorder was in the drawer of the end table and she retrieved it, slipped in the tape and pushed the "play" button.
Morning dawned bright and clear in Metropolis, the morning of the wedding of Lex Luthor to Lois Lane. Clark hadn't slept all night as he waited for the phone call from Lois that never came.
Had she listened to the tape? If she had, had she believed what she heard?
He didn't know. There had been no contact with William Henderson, although he knew the police inspector had been working hard to verify the information brought to him by Jimmy and Jack, and not a word from Lois. It was beginning to look like he was going to have to act. If he forcibly prevented Lois's wedding to Luthor, he had no idea how she would react even after the evidence came out. She would probably never forgive him for taking the decision out of her hands, but he couldn't let Lois's pig-headedness ruin her life, even if it ruined his.
In the bathroom, he could hear Perry's electric razor buzzing away. Jimmy and Jack were just stirring, and a glance out the curtained front windows showed him that the patient watcher was still at his post.
The razor went off, and he heard water splashing. A moment later, Perry stuck his head around the partition. "If you hurry you can get the bathroom before these two get their act together."
Clark nodded and headed for the bathroom. Behind him, he heard Perry rousting Jimmy and Jack. "Come on, you two. We've got places to go and people to see this morning."
Clark made fast work of showering, shaving and dressing while Perry was toasting bread for a hasty breakfast, and handed the bathroom over to the two junior members ten minutes later.
"Better get some breakfast," Perry told him. "Today looks like it's going to be a busy one. There's only a few hours left before the wedding." He looked shrewdly at Clark. "Henderson may still come through in time, Clark. I'm headed over there with Jimmy and Jack. I've got an assignment for you, too."
"I'm not sure there's anything left except something pretty drastic," Clark said. "I guess I could kidnap Lois off the steps of the church or something, if it looks like Henderson's not going to make it."
"I talked to him last night," Perry said. "He's having to be careful so as not to tip off Luthor. He's waiting for a particular judge to get back into town this afternoon -- one that he knows for sure isn't on Luthor's payroll. I want you to attend the wedding -- but no kidnapping; got it? I'm givin' you my cell phone, and if it looks like we might be late, I'll call you. If I do that, you're gonna have to delay the wedding by any means necessary. Can you manage it?"
Clark accepted the cell phone, set it on vibrate and slipped it into his pocket. "You can count on me, Chief."
Perry nodded, then took a second sharper look at him. "I mean it, Clark. No goin' off the deep end. It won't help us a bit if you get yourself arrested for doin' something stupid. You got me, son? And tell Superman the same thing. We're gonna beat Luthor the right way."
"What if Henderson's not in time?" Clark said. "She'll be tied to a sociopath for the rest of her life."
"Not if I know Lois," Perry said. "Once she knows the truth and comes to her senses, Luthor will be the one in hot water. You've never seen our Lois in nuclear mode. I have. Mad Dog Lane has nothing on Nuclear Lois. It's not a pretty sight." Perry looked him directly in the eyes. "In any case, we'll deal with that if it happens. Go get yourself a tux and be sure to take your invitation."
The penthouse ballroom was lavishly decorated, Clark saw as he took his seat near the front in the section reserved for the bride's guests, next to the aisle down which Lois would walk to meet her bridegroom. The room was wreathed in flowers, and almost as heavily populated with the cream of Metropolis's high society. He saw the mayor and his wife seated near the front, directly behind the place reserved for Lois's family. The rest of the seats were rapidly filling up with a veritable who's who of politicians, wealthy businessmen, CEOs of various international companies and their husbands or wives.
A full orchestra was assembled on one side of the room, complete with a conductor. Now and then a squeak or a soft toot could be heard as the musicians tuned their instruments. Clark watched the scene with a sense of unreality. He'd sworn to Lois that he would not attend her wedding, but here he was -- if for a slightly different purpose than might have been assumed.
An usher moved down the aisle, escorting a small, blond woman who must be Lois's mother to the spot in the front row reserved for the mother of the bride. Clark shifted uneasily as the last persons took their seats.
The cellular phone in his pocket vibrated. He glanced around and removed the phone covertly, ignoring the dagger-like glare of the small woman in the row ahead.
"Clark," Perry's voice said. "We're on our way. We'll be there in about fifteen minutes. If it looks like things are going too fast, you're going to have to delay it. Got it?"
"Got it," Clark said briefly. He closed the phone and put it back in his pocket.
There was a stir at the altar, and a man in the robes of an Archbishop moved out to take his place. A moment later, Lex Luthor, accompanied by a younger man, who must be the best man, entered from an inconspicuous side door.
A familiar wave of nausea washed over Clark as Luthor took his position in front of the Archbishop. He fought back dizziness, looking cautiously around for the source. He'd felt like this at the farm when his father had first uncovered the Kryptonite meteorite, and more recently at the Bank of Metropolis a few days before. It was fainter than it had been on the previous two occasions but very far from harmless.
There it was. It was as if his eyes were drawn to it like a magnet. Luthor was wearing it! The green stone on his right forefinger glinted evilly in the sunlight streaming in through the glass of the window that filled the entire outer wall.
If he tried to leave now, people would certainly notice, he thought, and Luthor could not fail to add two and two together. The man might be a sociopath, but he was malevolently intelligent. Grimly he stayed in his spot, fighting the influence of the poisonous crystal. He could feel the beads of sweat springing out on his forehead as he struggled to appear relaxed and normal. If he were somehow able to stagger out of here without anyone noticing anything wrong he would lose his one chance to stop what was about to happen. He sat still, clenching his teeth as the strength slowly drained from his muscles.
The orchestra struck up the wedding march, and he resisted the urge to look around, keeping his eyes fixed on Lex Luthor. The man's gaze was riveted on something behind Clark, and he could guess what it was. Lois was advancing down the aisle toward her bridegroom.
Why was the man wearing that thing? There had been the reference to Series K in the tape, and he could guess what the K stood for: Kryptonite. And something in the wine cellar. He must have planned all along to attack Superman, Clark thought. Even now, he was wearing a piece of the one thing that could harm his greatest enemy. Had he guessed that Superman would do everything in his power to stop his marriage to Lois? Or was it merely symbolism? Had he known somehow what Lois Lane meant to the Man of Steel?
Lois was passing him now. She didn't turn her head, but he saw her eyes flick in his direction. Then she was past him, and Lex Luthor stepped forward to draw her arm through his. Together, they faced the Archbishop as the orchestra went silent.
The Archbishop began to speak. Clark listened with his heart thumping like a hammer to the words of the traditional wedding ceremony, but in his mind he was casting about frantically for an idea; anything that he could use to delay things and give Henderson and the others time to get here before it was too late.
"... Into this holy estate these two persons present now come to be joined. If any person can show just cause why they may not be joined together - let them speak now or forever hold their peace."
The Archbishop paused for a second, but of course, no one really expected anyone to speak. No one ever did; it was just part of the ceremony.
"I have a reason!" Lois's voice spoke up, loud in the silence.
The Archbishop stared at her, apparently shocked into open-mouthed astonishment. Even Luthor seemed stunned. The room was completely silent, and then a low murmur began. Lois turned, facing the guests who had come to see her married. The white, delicate bouquet dropped unheeded to the ground, and Clark saw through the haze that was beginning to drop over his vision, the small tape recorder clutched in both of her hands. She pushed the "play" button, and into the echoing space of the enormous room, amplified by the microphone that had been positioned perfectly to broadcast the vows of the happy couple to everyone present, Luthor's voice began to speak.
The murmur died as the recorded voice continued, and then began again. Luthor seemed frozen in place.
The doors of the ballroom flew open and William Henderson, accompanied by Perry White, Jimmy Olsen, Jack Brown and a mob of uniformed police burst through.
"Stop the wedding!" Perry shouted. "You can't marry this man!"
Luthor snatched the recorder from Lois's hands and hurled it to the floor. The incriminating voice ceased with a dying hiccup. He glared at the uninvited guests. "What is the meaning of this?"
"The meaning, Luthor, is that you're through," Perry said, with obvious relish. "We have all the evidence against you we need."
"Evidence?" Lois asked. "You mean there's more?"
"He was behind the bombing of the Planet!" Jimmy's voice rose over the chaos that had erupted among the guests.
"I have a warrant here charging you with arson and other crimes too numerous to mention," Henderson said.
"You're out of your minds. All of you," Luthor said.
"You have the right to remain silent," Henderson said expressionlessly. Or, Clark thought, was he imagining the slightest hint of satisfaction in the officer's normally deadpan voice? It was hard to tell through the ringing in his ears as he struggled to stay upright. He had to hold out until they escorted Luthor away. "You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney ..."
The rest was a jumble of noise and confusion. Clark found himself leaning back against the seat, unable to sort out what was happening. There was a burst of shouts and a chorus of screams, and people were milling around in near-panic, and then the police were gone and so was the ache of the Kryptonite. Luthor -- where had Luthor gone?
"Clark!" Lois had dropped to her knees beside him, and he realized that he was leaning forward, his face in his hands. He made a tremendous effort and pushed himself upright, in spite of the feeling that his head was somehow divorced from the rest of his body.
"Oh Clark!" Her face was very close to his. "Are you all right?"
He nodded, fighting the tendency of the room to tilt sideways. "Sorry. I haven't had a lot of sleep lately."
Lois had picked up the remains of her recorder, and was holding the tape in one hand. "Clark, I'm so sorry I didn't believe you. I almost didn't listen to it ... but when I did ..." She took a deep breath. "You were right all along."
Things were steadying down, now that the Kryptonite was gone. "Where's Luthor?"
Henderson glanced at him. "Don't worry, we'll get him. We have the whole building sealed off." He hurried after his men. Lois looked after him and then sank onto a chair.
"I've always been such a good judge of character. I almost married him! Then I listened to the tape, and ..." She shuddered. "Clark, can you ever forgive me for being so stupid?"
"He fooled us all," Perry said.
"Not me," Jack said glumly.
"I never trusted him," Jimmy said.
"It was Clark who smoked him out," Perry said. "You okay, son?"
"Yeah." Clark got gingerly to his feet, but the room remained steady. "Let's get out of here."
"It can't be fast enough for me," Lois said. "I spent half the night trying to figure out what to do." She clutched the cassette. "After I got over the shock, I was just so angry... I heard him talking to that woman ..." She glanced at Perry, Jimmy and Jack and broke off. "Come on. I can't stand this place."
Together they made their way past the milling guests out into the hall. Clark ventured to touch Lois's hand. "I'm sorry things didn't turn out the way you wanted."
"Don't be. Last night while I was trying to decide what to do I realized something else."
"I realized that this way, I didn't have to give up my best friend. It was actually a relief. You never gave up on me, did you?"
"I couldn't," Clark said.
"I know, even though I don't understand why." She swallowed suddenly. "Can you forgive me for treating you the way I did?"
"Do you even need to ask?"
"You're a lot more generous than I would be," she said. "I want to go home, if you don't mind."
"I'll take you there."
She nodded, and he saw her swallow again. She wasn't nearly as calm as she was trying to pretend, but she didn't want anyone to know, he thought, as he rang for the elevator. Here and there various persons who had been guests at the aborted wedding wandered about somewhat aimlessly as if they weren't quite sure what the protocol was for this kind of social situation. They would figure it out eventually, he thought, but he suspected that Lois didn't want to share the elevator with any of them. The car arrived within seconds and he and his companions boarded. The elevator doors closed and the car began its hundred-odd story drop.
Which was why none of them were aware, until they stepped out into the street and saw the crowd of onlookers, police and emergency vehicles, that Lex Luthor had fallen to his death after jumping from the balcony of his office to escape the avenging hand of the law. Justice, as Perry said later, had finally caught up with Lex Luthor. He had taken the easy way out, but not one of them could be sorry.
"Come on, Lois," Clark said. "I'll take you home."
Lois let Clark open the taxi door for her and slipped into the seat. Her partner got in beside her and gave the driver an address.
Lois leaned back in the seat and closed her eyes. She hadn't slept at all the night before, after she had listened to the tape. It had been Lex's voice without possibility of mistake and he had been speaking to his assistant. As she had listened, from the first conversation where he had implied an ongoing sexual relationship with his executive assistant -- one that he intended to continue after his marriage, and of which his wife would remain unaware -- to the final conversation wherein he carelessly ordered Mrs. Cox to make certain that the "incentives" to several members of the City Council regarding certain zoning ordinances were completely untraceable, she had been aware of a growing sense of dismay that rose rapidly to sheer fury. Clark had been right all along when he had told her that Lex was dirty, and listening to him conducting business as usual, she had known without doubt that he had no intention of reforming. Heaven alone knew what else he was involved in, but she intended to find out, and most of all she had wanted to make him pay for trying to make a fool of her. Lois Lane, investigative reporter, would have married a man who was everything she had fought against during her career at the Daily Planet, and no doubt that would inflate Lex's ego tremendously to know how he had duped her. If not for Clark, he would have succeeded.
She owed Clark an abject apology for the way she had treated him, accusing him of jealousy when all along he had been fighting in her corner, doing his best to save her from Lex and from herself. Well, she would take care of that, but that would have to come later. First she had to deal with Lex, and after many hours of concocting and discarding various plans, she had decided that the world should hear the truth about the great philanthropist and self-made billionaire from his own lips, as it were.
But now it was over; Lex was dead, and the anger that had sustained her through the day and the beginning of the wedding ceremony was gone. She was left only with a sense of depression.
As a matter of fact, seeing Clark there had brought home to her just how badly she had treated him. He was her best friend, and by his own admission, he loved her -- had loved her for a very long time. He had stuck by her even when she had accused him of trying to stop her wedding to Lex simply out of jealousy, and fought to save her with far more determination than she had any right to expect. He had nearly collapsed there at the end, and although he'd claimed it was lack of sleep that was to blame, Lois suspected it had more to do with relief that she had finally seen the light.
She opened her eyes and lifted her head to look at her former partner. Clark looked pale and tired, and she was aware of a stab of conscience. She'd known he cared about her, and hadn't been entirely surprised when he'd told her his feelings for her went well past simple friendship. She hadn't been ready to deal with that on top of everything else -- especially since the whole idea had scared her half to death. She could deal with a marriage of convenience, for although Lex had claimed to love her, her feelings for him had been more admiration for the man she'd thought he was, and respect for what he had made of himself. But Clark? Her partner was much more dangerous to her peace of mind, because she genuinely cared about him. But didn't he deserve some consideration from her after everything he'd done, even in the face of her resistance?
He turned his head and smiled at her. She'd missed that smile so badly in the weeks since her engagement to Lex. She'd missed his easy friendship, the way she had felt in his company -- that she could say or do anything, and that he would understand and accept it because he was her friend. That might not be love, but it was a good beginning, and who knew where it might lead?
The taxi turned onto Carter Avenue, and ahead she could see the crowd of news vans, the swarm of people from every news outlet in town, the video equipment all aimed at her modest apartment house. Why should she be surprised? The Media was waiting for her to come home so that its representatives could turn her life into a circus in their never-ending quest for sensationalism with which to entertain the public. She grimaced, but refused to flinch. This was her story -- hers and Clark's. They might not have a newspaper to publish it in, but she was quite sure they could find one that would take it.
"Pull over here," she said.
The cab driver obeyed and Clark leaned forward to pay the bill. He glanced at Lois. "Are you sure you want to face them?"
"This is our story," Lois said, tight-lipped. "They're just going to have to find their crumbs somewhere else."
Surprisingly, Clark's face broke into a smile. "You're the boss." He got out and extended a hand to help her out. Lois lifted the hem of the fabulously expensive wedding gown and slid her feet to the sidewalk. With an impatient gesture, she pulled the veil from her hair. "I can't wait to get out of this thing," she said. "Let's go."
Getting into Lois's apartment hadn't been exactly a picnic, Clark thought later, but it wasn't nearly as bad as he had expected. Mad Dog Lane was back in spades, and she had dealt with her colleagues in her usual no-nonsense fashion.
"You know," he remarked as he closed and locked the door behind them, "spiking Frank Madison's instep like that was a little excessive, don't you think?"
"He wouldn't get out of my way," Lois said. "He knew better, so I just reminded him why I've always gotten the story first."
The phone rang on the last word, and she snatched up the receiver. "Lane. No, I have no statement at this time ... Look, you idiot, this is the story of the decade, and it's mine, so bug off!"
Clark raised his eyebrows as she slammed the phone into its cradle. "Your story?"
"Well, ours, if you'll share your byline." She tossed the veil onto the coffee table. "I guess I haven't thanked you for what you did, Clark. Thanks."
"Any time," her partner said.
"No," Lois said. "I think you went well above and beyond the call of duty for me and I wasn't very appreciative -- at least until today. Last night, actually." She looked seriously at him. "I'm grateful, Clark, but I think you know that. Thank you for coming to the rescue -- again."
"You're welcome," he said.
"Are we still friends?" she asked.
"The best," he said.
"That's a relief," she said. "I've chased a lot of friends away with a lot less than I've put you through."
He shrugged, a little embarrassed. "I guess I had a selfish motive," he said. "Not," he added quickly, "that I'd have made trouble if the guy you were going to marry was a decent man. I just --"
"I know that," she said. "I should have realized it before, but I was determined to be right, no matter what. I sometimes wonder how you put up with me."
"So you're a little stubborn," he said.
She laughed dryly. "That's a generous five hundred percent understatement."
"Well," he said, "sometimes stubborn is a good thing."
"Sometimes it is," she said. "I guess I'm not likely to change, either."
"I don't want you to change," he said. "I like you the way you are."
"Good thing," she said. "I've missed you, Clark."
"I've missed you," he said. "I guess we can still be friends while we hunt for jobs. Maybe we could market ourselves as a matched set. The reporting team of Lane and Kent."
"Any editor would be crazy not to want us on his staff," Lois said.
"I'm glad confidence isn't an issue with you," Clark said.
"Only some of the time." He saw that she was looking at the veil, lying carelessly on the table. "Remember what you said that day in the park?"
"Did you mean it?"
"I meant it. Only I know you don't feel the same way, so just pretend I never said it. It won't make a difference."
"It can't help but make a difference," she said. "It doesn't have to be a bad thing, though." She looked up to meet his eyes. "I don't know how I feel about you exactly. I know you're the best friend I've ever had, and I'm more comfortable with you than I am with anyone else -- even my own sister. Whether it can ever be more than that, I don't know, but --" She looked down. "-- We could just keep being friends, and see if anything develops, can't we? I mean --" she fumbled slightly, "I don't really know if I'm cut out for the whole love and marriage thing after this last fiasco, but you and I seem to have done all right, at least up until Lex got in the way. Couldn't we just try having fun together and see if it turns into something more?" She looked hesitantly up at him and he found himself smiling at her.
"It sounds like a great idea to me," he said. "I didn't really expect you to throw yourself into my arms when I told you, you know. I just wanted you to know. I guess I didn't have the best timing."
"Probably not," she admitted. "But lots of things have changed since then."
"That's true," he said.
"Then it's a deal?" she asked.
"It's a deal."
"Good. Then as my official best friend, do you think you could help me out of this thing? It's so tight I can barely breathe, and the buttons are all down the back where I can't reach them."
Clark gulped. "Me?"
"Yes, you. But don't get any ideas, buster. I'm still wearing my spike heels." Her grin told him she was joking. "Really, Clark, I'm hot and tired, and I want to get into some shorts, so if you'll help me out of this, I can go back to being me instead of a society bride. I think you can handle it. You saw me in a lot less than a slip, after Miranda sprayed us with that pheromone."
He gathered his nerve. "Okay, turn around."
Things had definitely changed for the better, he thought as he began to deal with the tiny pearl buttons; in fact, they had turned out a lot better than he'd had any right to expect. Superman could stay in Metropolis after all. Lois knew how he felt, and she didn't seem to mind, and given time and some luck, maybe they would be more than best friends before long.
It was certainly something to hope for, and he hadn't really wanted to work for the Borneo Gazette anyway.