This is a continuation of the Alt-world Vacation series, and follows "Masquerade".
By Nan Smith
New Year's Eve in Metropolis had a surreal feeling about it, Lois Lane thought, as she walked into the newsroom. The monitors were on and showed Clark, in his Superman guise, fighting a fire in a high rise, situated in midtown Metropolis. He was bringing out smoke-stained human beings and the occasional cat or dog, which was greeted with relief by its owner. She made a point of clocking in and then turned on her heel and exited as fast as she had entered, only this time through the door to the stairwell. It looked as if the fire wasn't likely to be over soon, and she had an exclusive source for details ...
Snow was drifting down as she emerged onto the sidewalk. She looked frantically around and then lifted her fingers to her lips and produced a whistle that could, a number of people had assured her, be heard three blocks away. An instant later, a cab screeched to a stop beside her. She scrambled in. "Take me to the fire," she ordered.
"Which one?" the man asked.
"The one Superman's fighting," she said, adding peripherally, "What do you mean which one?"
"There's another one in Suicide Slum," the man informed her, swinging the cab around in a U-turn, in bland disregard for both the weather and the traffic laws.
"Oh." It sounded as if Clark was going to be busy today, she thought, belatedly pulling the cab's seatbelt across her lap. It turned out to be a good idea, as the cabbie had apparently learned his driving skills in the same school as her dad's last girlfriend, before Lois had left for the Congo -- the one who had wrapped her father's Mercedes around the telephone pole. By the time the cab screeched to a stop in front of the police lines, she was sure that she would never see the Daily Planet again, but swore that if she did, she was going to get that car that she had promised herself she was going to buy after the Congo assignment was over.
Displaying her Press pass won her access to the area behind the Fire Chief, where he directed operations. As she arrived in the location where three other members of the press also waited, Clark touched down beside the Fire Chief. "Everyone's out, sir," he said. "What else do you need me to do?"
Lois listened as the man issued terse instructions, and watched as Clark hefted the enormous container of fire retardant and flew off with it. Then, she cautiously approached the chief. "Lois Lane, Daily Planet," she introduced herself. "Do you have time for a question or two?"
The man nodded. "Sure. Just make it fast."
"What happened? Do you have any idea how the fire started?"
"Possible arson." The Fire Chief was still following Superman's flight through the air. "There's been a pattern like this for the last couple of months. Big fire to pull in all the local resources; then another one in Suicide Slum, a little later. Might be some guy with a weird social agenda."
"A sick social agenda," Lois said. "What's being done about the other one?"
"We pulled in the trucks from the north side division. They're fighting it, and as soon as Superman finishes this chore, I'm gonna ask him to head over there. I sure hope the cops nail this character soon, though, before somebody gets killed."
"You and me both," Lois said. "Thanks, Chief."
"Don't mention it." The man turned to speak to a paramedic who was approaching and Lois craned her neck to see what Clark was doing.
The clouds of smoke had turned very dark: a sure sign that inroads were being made on the fire. A moment later, she saw the figure in red and blue emerge from the structure, turn and ... The flurry of flakes that whooshed toward the building startled her for an instant before she realized that her new partner must be using his incredible lung power to quench the flames in that particular section of the building. Quickly, he zipped around to another location and repeated the action. Apparently satisfied, he dropped toward the pavement and came to a landing next to the Fire Chief again.
The man was listening to his radio, and he nodded. "Right. Do that." He turned to Superman. "Thanks, Superman. I think we can handle this, now. You head over to the other one and see what you can do."
"Yes, sir," Clark said.
"Superman!" Lois interrupted. "Can you give me a lift over there, too?"
Clark's head swiveled instantly toward her voice. "Hi, Lois. Sure; come on." He held out an arm.
"Do the police have any clues about this arsonist?" Lois asked, once they were in the air.
Clark shook his head. "Not much. I've been trying to investigate, but having the press dogging every step I take makes it a little difficult. I guess they'd probably rather that I didn't get in their way, anyhow. Martin, from the Star, told me that he didn't think it was fair for me to compete."
"That wouldn't be Bill Martin, would it?"
"He didn't think it was 'fair' for a Kerth-winning reporter to be investigating crime in Metropolis, either. He said it made it too hard for the rest of them. Martin's a whiner. He thinks the world should be fair, so that he can get the credit he 'deserves' -- which is to say, none. The guy should be reporting on dog shows," Lois said, dismissing the Star's reporter. "You and I are going to go after this guy. Arsonists are the lowest of the low."
"All right," Clark said. He angled down toward the burning building. "Let's get this thing under control first and then you can tell me what you have in mind."
"Have you seen anything that might be a clue when you were fighting the fires?" Lois asked. They were sailing through the air in the general direction of the Daily Planet.
"Not a lot," Clark said. "I have the arson investigator's reports, of course. They're at home, though. Chief Walters has promised to send me the one on this latest pair of fires as soon as his guys get finished with them."
"That's good," Lois said, "but I think you should go and watch while they collect evidence -- and maybe do a little snooping on your own. You might see something that they miss. Why don't you drop me off at the Planet and I'll take care of writing up the article under our byline -- and you can get a first-hand look at what they find."
"Okay," Clark said.
"And if Bill Martin complains that you're too tough, competition-wise, tell him to go suck an egg. It's not your fault that he's a second-rater."
"Uh -- I think I'll phrase it a little differently than that," Clark said, but she could see that he was trying not to grin. "I'll leave the insults to you."
"Probably the best idea," she agreed. "I'm better at it. Set me down on the roof," she added. "I'll take it from there."
Clark set her down on the roof and took off in a whirl of flakes. Lois opened the roof door and entered the stairwell. Her feet echoed hollowly as she descended to the next level and opened the door into the business level of the Daily Planet.
A secretary -- or some kind of female employee, anyway -- was waiting for the elevator. She glanced curiously at Lois. "Are you lost?"
"No," Lois assured her. "Superman just dropped me off on the roof. I'm headed for the newsroom."
The woman gave her a hard look and her eyebrows flew up. "You must be Lois Lane."
"That's right. How did you know?"
The woman grinned. "Do you know Ralph?"
"From the newsroom? Unfortunately, yes. Why?"
A giggle. "He was telling one of the guys in the elevator that you'd got yourself partnered with Mr. Kent so you could steal a march on him, so I figured if Clark was dropping you off, you must be her."
"Clark's just helping me get started again. Besides, I don't need Clark to help me steal a march on Ralph," Lois said. "The dogcatcher could do it without half trying."
Another giggle. "Yeah, I know." Suddenly, she sobered. "Mr. Kent is awfully nice, Ms. Lane, and an awful lot of people take advantage of him. I've heard you're going to be his representative from now on."
"Then you should know that that Nunk guy -- you know: the creep from the Whisper -- was trying to get me to say some horrible things about him. He promised to pay me a lot of money if I'd say that Superman was -- well, you know -- using his being Superman to take advantage of me. All of us in the secretarial pool know about it. Clark's always been a gentleman to all of us, so I thought somebody should warn him."
Lois raised an eyebrow. "I should have figured Nunk would be up to his old tricks. Thanks for telling me." She reflected that the stuff in her files that Clark had retrieved for her from Lucy's attic was going to come in handy after all. Having blackmail material on someone as sleazy as the so-called journalist for the Whisper was always a good idea, especially since she and Nunk had crossed swords a few times before. She'd have to see if Louie could give her a little more recent material, just to strengthen her hand a bit.
"Don't mention it, Ms. Lane." The secretary smiled. "You don't find many genuine nice guys in this business. Mr. Kent is one of them, whether or not he's from Earth. I don't want to see him hurt by some publication like the Whisper."
"I know," Lois said. "I owe him a lot. Don't worry; I'll deal with Mr. Nunk. By the time I'm through with him, he's not going to have time to waste trying to harass Clark." She paused. "What's your name?"
"I'm Jonetta." She extended a hand.
Lois took it. "Glad to meet you."
Back once more in the newsroom, Lois placed several phone calls and then set about writing her article on the fires of the morning. As she was finishing, her phone rang. She touched the key to LAN her article to Eduardo and picked up the receiver. "Lois Lane."
"Lois, sweetheart! I'd heard you were back!"
"Hi, Louie," Lois said. "I was wondering if I could come by and see you."
"Sure thing, sweetcakes! You know where to find me."
"Same place as last time?"
"Yep, pool hall and everything. Drop by around noon -- or whenever you can make it."
"I'll be there. In the meantime, do you think you can find me some dirt on Leo Nunk -- more recent stuff than my file on him, that is? It's five years old."
"Nunk?" She could almost see Louie rubbing his hands together. "You bet I can. I been thinkin' about payin' him back for a while."
Nunk, it appeared, was making enemies in places other than merely the celebrities of Metropolis. "Great. Thanks, Louie. I owe you."
After she hung up, she sat thinking for several minutes. If she was going to resume her rightful place as the Daily Planet's top reporter, she was going to need to reconnect with her informants. Hopefully, Bobby Bigmouth was still around.
"What's going on, Lois?" It was Eduardo, standing behind her. "From all this activity, I assume you're working on something."
"I just LANned you the fire story," Lois said, reaching for the phone again. "Clark and I have decided to investigate the arsons."
"Oh? Clark said he wasn't making very much headway with that story," Eduardo said.
"Yeah, I know. The guys from the other papers seem to think he's the story. Those characters are lazy, and have no imagination into the bargain. They'd rather go for the easy story than take on the hard stuff. Well, Lane and Kent are going to force them to compete or leave them in the dust."
"I'm glad to see you don't lack for confidence," Eduardo said. He grinned. "I've been of the opinion that these characters have been having it too easy for stories, ever since Superman appeared. It'll be good to see them upstaged. Go to it."
Lois nodded. "Excuse me. I have to make a call."
"Don't let me stop you." Eduardo turned toward the reporter who was lounging by the water cooler. "Ralph! Where's that piece on the urban redevelopment plan?"
Ralph almost dropped his cup of water. "Uh -- I'm working on it."
"Not from what I can see. You've been standing there for at least ten minutes. Now get me something to fill up some space on page two or you're fired!"
Lois grinned and began to punch in a phone number.
Bobby Bigmouth was still around, all right. Her favorite snitch, it appeared, had graduated to the big time, so to speak. His answering service -- answering service? -- requested that she leave a message and a number for him to call her back. Lois did so and then checked the list of contacts that Clark had given her and phoned his contact at the police department. The woman promised to fax over the preliminary report as soon as it became available.
Lois put down the phone, only to have it ring almost immediately. She picked it up. "Lois Lane."
"Hi, Lois!" the voice at the other end of the line said. "I was wondering when you were going to get in touch with me."
"Hi, Bobby. I need some information," she said at once. "What's your going rate these days?"
"Who did you say we're meeting?" Clark asked.
"Bobby Bigmouth," Lois said. "He was my most reliable snitch back before the Congo assignment. He's apparently done pretty well for himself while I was gone. Don't tell me you've never heard of him."
Clark shook his head. "Nope."
"Well, you're about to," she said. "He tells me his business has dropped off since Superman appeared. It's easier to report on Superman than it is to go after the hard stories. I told him I was going to put some competition back into the business again, and he was all for it. First, though, we need to go get him a deluxe deli sandwich, some kind of side dish, like gourmet coleslaw and some kind of dessert. He specified flan or fried ice cream, which means a visit to a good Mexican restaurant. Do you know one that you'd recommend?"
"Uh -- yeah, I think so," Clark said. "Senora Maria's is probably the best one that's open at this time of day."
"Okay, let's go. You're going to keep a low profile while we talk to Bobby. He says he's got something on the arsons that we can use."
"I'm all for that," Clark said. "The fires were arson, all right. They found the remains of incendiary devices."
"In both places?"
He nodded. "It looks like they were planted near gas lines and connected to timers."
"Yeah. There doesn't seem to be any other kind of connection between the arsons -- just the similar pattern to the other five."
"Then, if it's not just a nut," Lois said, "there must be some other reason behind it."
"I've been thinking that for a while," Clark said, "but every time I've tried to investigate, I've had a tail of two or three 'journalists' wanting to know what I was doing, and of course, the snitches don't want to talk to me. I've started to wonder if I was going to have to give up being an investigative reporter because of it." His lips twitched. "By the way, Bill Martin objected to me giving you an interview and leaving him out. Not to mention the fact that I gave you a lift to the fire."
"What did you say?"
"I told him that you gave me the courtesy of honoring my deal with the press, and that all of those who broke the agreement in the last month were on my freeze-out list for the next two weeks. Since that includes almost every journalist in Metropolis, you're going to get practically exclusive access to Superman interviews for a couple of weeks."
"Perfect." Lois said. "And as for your giving up being an investigative reporter, forget it. We're going to fix that, starting today. Just remember; you're Charlie King this afternoon. Clark Kent is just helping me get back up to speed, but to anyone we talk to, Charlie is my protege. Or he will be."
"You think they won't know who I am?"
"Not if we do it right. Now, let's go get Bobby his salary and see what he has to say."
Bobby Bigmouth hadn't changed much in five years, Lois thought, except to become leaner, if possible. He glanced clinically at Lois's spiky-haired companion and raised an eyebrow. "I can get you a deal on earrings," he remarked, deadpan. "They got a sale on tourmalines at Winslow's Jewelry. They're the newest in cool."
"Maybe you should check it out, Charlie," Lois said. The thought of her partner with a pink earring made her want to grin. "This is Charlie King, Bobby," she added. "He's learning the ropes. Charlie: Bobby Bigmouth."
"Gladta meetcha," Bobby said, absently. "You got my lunch?"
"Right here." Lois produced the bag. "One super-sized deli sandwich, coleslaw with pineapple garnish, and flan. Also," she added, "One double-sized chocolate malt. Extra on the malt. Now, what have you got for me?"
"I heard a couple of guys talking," Bobby said, looking speculatively at the bag in Lois's hands. "This guy -- he's working for somebody who's got a stake in buyin' up the property on that chunk of land for some kind of development scheme -- right on the edges of Suicide Slum. But first he's got to clear out the 'residents'. I guess he figures the firefighters are gonna be more interested in saving the property in the better sections of Metropolis."
"You mean this is some kind of scheme to get the land?" Lois asked, stunned. "In Suicide Slum?"
"Kind of," Bobby said. "The slumlords like those places. They get income, an' the health and safety guys never even bother to check them out. I heard somebody'd tried to buy it a few months ago, but couldn't get the owner to sell."
"What kind of idiot would be after property there?"
"Somebody who thinks he can make a profit out of it, I guess," Bobby said. "Anyhow, this guy I heard talkin' has his own scam going. Check out the times of those fires, and the robberies that took place at the same time. You might find a connection. That's all I can tell you, though. I like livin'." He glanced at the bag she held and extended a hand. Lois gave it to him, as well as the super-sized shake.
"Enjoy," she said, unnecessarily, as Bobby was already opening the bag. "Oh, one more thing."
"Yeah?" The word was spoken thickly through the first enormous bite of the deli sandwich.
"If you could find me some significant dirt on Leo Nunk, I might be persuaded to spring for a full Peking Duck dinner -- unless you'd prefer something else. Come on, Charlie."
"You get hold of the police reports," Lois said, as they stepped into the elevator in the Planet's lobby, "and I'll check out records of land sales in Suicide Slum. Whoever this guy is, he's either crazy or he's got some long-term scheme in mind. What idiot would want to buy land in that section of town?"
"Well, the property is cheap," Clark pointed out. "If somebody wanted to put in the money and effort, it could pay off pretty well."
"I suppose so," Lois said. "And if the strategy works, I guess he won't be investing nearly as much money as he might if he had to buy at full price. Just the land is worth a fair amount, even if the buildings are condemned. And bulldozing a bunch of burned buildings is probably cheaper than tearing the tenements down."
Clark straightened his tie. "On it. By the way," he added, "since when did our byline get to be 'Lane and Kent'?"
"Well," Lois said, undaunted, "I was here before you."
He raised an eyebrow at her, but she could tell he was trying not to grin. "Oh, right. I'd forgotten."
"And this afternoon, before the stores close for New Year's Eve," Lois added, in a non-sequitur, "before I see Louie, I want to visit Winslow's Jewelers and see about that bargain that Bobby was talking about. Charlie King is going to keep a low profile, but he'll be real useful on undercover jobs -- and if by chance someone does see him, I think a pink earring and maybe a couple of gold chains will look real cute."
"Not to mention," Clark said, dryly, "be great for misdirection. I think I'll get myself a wig. Maybe blond."
"You know," Lois said, struck, "that idea's not half-bad." She grinned. "Make way for Charlie King, undercover journalist extraordinaire."
The elevator doors opened at that instant, and Ralph, at the water-cooler, stared at them with his mouth open as they emerged from the car, laughing.
"You're kidding me, right?" Clark was saying, some two hours later. He surveyed himself in the mirror that hung conveniently on the wall of Winslow's Jewelers. The pink earring on his left earlobe glinted fetchingly.
"Nope. Pink earrings are the newest in cool. Bobby said so."
Clark forbore to express his opinion of Bobby Bigmouth's expertise when it came to style, but he had to admit that Lois was right. Besides, if this meant that he could continue his career as an investigative journalist, then so be it. He consciously kept his hands away from the blond wig that he had purchased half an hour before. It made him look like some kind of punk rocker, but certainly no one was going to connect the swaggering Charlie King with Superman, or even Clark Kent. Still, the tattoo that Lois had applied to his left shoulder and neck in such a way as to show slightly above the V-neck of his T-shirt, had left him slightly doubtful. The indelible ink should hold up pretty well, and he could reapply it when it started to wear, but the fanged serpent didn't quite seem to reflect his personality very well. On the other hand, he reminded himself, that was exactly the point.
"I look more like a Spike or something than a Charlie," he remarked as they left the shop a few minutes later.
"All to the good," Lois said. "You'll fit right in at Louie's."
"Tell me again why we're going to see this Louie," Clark said.
"Louie is an old friend of mine," Lois said. "He knows guys who know guys."
"And how do you know him?"
She shrugged. "Just lucky. His daughter was my tennis doubles partner in college."
"Ah, I see. And why are we going to see him?"
"He and we have a mutual acquaintance."
"And who would that be?"
"Nunk. Louie has some information he'd like to give me."
"Oh," Clark said. "Nunk is just a nuisance, Lois. I don't really think --"
"Nunk is out to further his career by making up a big scandal about Superman. We're going to short-circuit him."
"Oh," Clark said, startled. "How do you know this?"
"Jonetta, from the Planet's secretarial pool, told me," Lois said, matter-of-factly. "Besides, Nunk and I have issues from five years ago. He tried the same thing with Perry."
"Uh huh. Fortunately, I had a couple of tidbits of information that Nunk didn't want to have known at the time. We came to an agreement."
"You blackmailed him?"
Lois strove to look pained. "Do you have to be so blunt about it?"
Clark laughed. "Okay, so I guess we're looking for blackmail material on Nunk. I'd think that with him it would have to be something pretty extreme. Your ordinary scandal wouldn't faze him much."
"Definitely. But don't underestimate me."
"Never," Clark said, sincerely. "I'm beginning to figure that out."
The pool hall where Lois intended to meet Louie was a seedy, well-worn establishment in the no man's land that divided the better sections of the city of Metropolis from the cesspool that was Suicide Slum. Even the layer of snow that was beginning to coat every flat surface couldn't disguise the air of dirt, grime and general disrepair. Clark looked around dubiously and firmly reminded himself that Superman was immune to Earth-germs. Lois, on the other hand, didn't seem to notice. She pushed open the door and strode confidently in.
Two men were playing pool at one of the tables in the center of the room. The individual lining up his shot was a big, beefy fellow with a shock of greasy hair and a fat, malodorous cigar clenched between his teeth. The second man was thin and weedy, with a two-day growth of beard. He clutched a beer can in one hand. The place reeked of stale tobacco smoke, beer and sweat.
Lois marched up to the men and leaned against the table. The man with the pool cue straightened up, scowling at her.
"I'm Lois," she informed the two men. "I need to see Louie."
Slowly, the beefy fellow leaned down and began to line up his shot on the 9-ball once more. Lois reached casually down and picked up the ball. "Hold this, Charlie," she said, tossing the object to him. "I'm here to see Big Louie," she added to the pool player. "I'm Lois. Louie's expecting me."
The man straightened up a second time, the scowl on his face growing deeper. He glared briefly at Lois, then at Clark, holding the ball. Without a word, he turned and made his way toward the rear of the room.
"You just have to know how to talk to these guys," Lois said. Clark glanced at the weedy man, but he had tilted his head far back, apparently intent upon emptying his beer can of the last few drops of its contents.
A door at the back of the room opened and a man emerged. He was short, fat and balding, and the grin on his face when he saw Lois told Clark at once that this was Big Louie. The beefy man followed him out. He glanced sourly at Lois.
"Give him the ball back," Lois directed, casually. Clark tossed it to the beefy man, who caught it and returned to the pool table without another glance at them. Louie beckoned to them, and they retreated to a small section in one corner, where a ratty sofa, a battered coffee table and two equally ratty-looking chairs were clustered artistically together.
As soon as she came within reach, Louie enveloped Lois in a massive hug. "Lois, sweetie, I thought we was never gonna see you again!"
"You wouldn't have," Lois said, "if it hadn't been for Superman. He saved my life."
"Yeah, the big blue Boy Scout's cool that way. Don't tell him I said so, but he's good to have around -- especially in this neighborhood," Louie said casually. "The crime rate's dropped even around here since he came to town." He let her go and gestured to the chairs. "Have a seat. What can I do for you, cupcake? Tricia's going to want to see you, you know. Can I give her your number?"
"Sure." Lois fished in her purse and presented Louie with a business card. "Here's my number at the Planet. I'm getting an apartment but I won't be moving in for a couple of days, so I don't have a permanent phone yet."
Louie took the card and tucked it into his breast pocket. "Thanks. So, what can I do for you today?"
"Well, as you probably know," Lois said, "I'm Superman's new representative."
"Yeah, I heard. That was a smart move. He needs somebody to run interference for him -- or was that your idea?"
"Both, actually." She nodded at Clark, who had kept quiet while she talked. "This is Charlie King. He's helping me out while Clark does his Superman stuff."
"Gladta meetcha," Louie said absently. "Any friend of Lois is a friend of mine."
"Likewise," Clark said.
"Anyway," Lois said, "I've gotten some information that Leo Nunk is trying to gin up some kind of sex scandal about Clark. There's not a lot you can do about stuff like that when somebody's determined to make trouble -- unless you can shut him down. I was wondering if you could help me."
"You want I should send some guys to have a talk with him?" Louie inquired, cracking his knuckles absently.
"Uh -- I don't think it's necessary to go that far," Lois said. "I'm just looking for information that might help me persuade him that it's to his advantage to drop the project."
"Throw a scare into him, huh?" Louie said. "Yeah, I think I can help you with that. You might want to find out about a guy named Gary Snoot, about ten years ago, in Newark. He had to leave town suddenly -- and a guy named Vernon Hinkle. Just leave my name out of it."
Lois was scribbling hastily on a small notepad. "Your name won't come into it. Thanks. This might be exactly what I need."
"Don't mention it, sweetcakes. You sure you don't want my boys to have a word with Nunk? I can guarantee he won't have no urge to report it."
"No," Lois said. "But thanks for the offer."
"It's your call. If you change your mind, you know where I am."
"Louie is a little --" Clark paused, trying to find a word to describe the man as they headed down the sidewalk toward the nearest alley. The layer of clouds overhead that was responsible for the snow that drifted through the afternoon air had grown thicker, and the slight breeze was crisp and cold.
"Louie's okay," Lois said. "Basically, he knows guys who know guys. Don't let him fool you."
"I don't think he could," Clark said. "Are you sure he's not going to harm Nunk?"
"He won't," Lois said. "Nunk is a grease job, but Louie knows I'll handle it."
"You seem pretty sure of it."
"You have to understand Louie," Lois said. "His word is completely reliable. If it wasn't, he'd be out of business in a week. It's his corporate policy -- so to speak."
"Oh," Clark said.
"Exactly. Now, let's get back to the newsroom and see what we can dig up. I also want to give Bobby a call. He might know something about this Gary Snoot character."
"I meant to ask; what did you find out that Nunk is up to?" Clark asked.
"He was trying to bribe the women in the Planet's secretarial pool to accuse you of trying to take advantage of them," Lois said baldly. "I caught him at the same game with Perry years ago when he was new at the Celebrity Scandal Weekly. I guess he figures that the stuff I had on him then is old news. We'll see what kind of result this new information produces."
Lois put down the phone and glanced at her partner. Clark was typing furiously on his computer keyboard, but, because of the angle of his desk, no one in the room could see the speed with which his fingers were moving across the keys. Lois smiled to herself. Their coworkers tended to watch Clark covertly for any demonstrations of super-human feats. If they were a little less obviously eager to see him in action, he might relax a little and give them their wish. As far as she could see, only the paper's science editor, Cat Grant, was blasé about Clark's presence in the newsroom. She and Cat had known each other slightly before her ill-fated trip to the Congo, but she had always had a positive opinion of the woman. Grant had class; that was the only word to describe her. It was probably just as well that she was a good ten or twelve years older than Clark, or Lois might have had competition for him.
Clark leaned back in his chair and stretched. Lois got to her feet and moved to sit on the corner of his desk. "Anything?"
Clark nodded at the screen. "I've been checking some of the news reports on the days of the fires. Bobby was right. Every time we had a double fire alarm, there was a robbery in the same section of the city. I guess Superman had better watch for that the next time it happens."
"Sounds like a plan," Lois agreed. "I, on the other hand, have been looking at sales of land in Suicide Slum in the last few months. There have been five --"
"Interesting coincidence. There have also been five double fires before the one today."
"Amazing," Lois said, dryly. "The different plots of land were bought by three different companies. It turns out they're dummies that are subsidiaries of other companies that are subsidiaries of other companies. The trails are getting complicated."
"Give me what you've got," Clark said. "I'll see what I can find."
"I just emailed it to you a minute ago. I also just got a call back from Bobby about that other thing."
"Well, according to Bobby, Gary Snoot had something going with Vernon Hinkle's sister, Alicia. Something happened, and Snoot had to leave town in a hurry. Hinkle is apparently still looking for him. He even has a website with a picture of Snoot. Bobby gave me the URL. I looked it up. I owe Bobby a Peking Duck dinner."
"Let's say, Gary Snoot bears a remarkable resemblance to Leo Nunk. Younger, of course, and his hair's a different color --"
"Why am I not surprised?"
"For the same reason I'm not. I guess that's why you never see Nunk's picture next to any of his articles."
"Maybe. On the other hand," Clark pointed out, "would you want your picture beside any of the kind of stuff he writes?"
"You have a point. Still, reporters are pretty anonymous. Most people wouldn't recognize your average journalist's name, much less his face. I guess he's felt pretty safe up until now," Lois said. She smiled innocently. "I just called Nunk and arranged to meet him as an anonymous source. Tonight. At the Countdown party. I'd think this particular piece of blackmail material should last longer than five years."
"I'd say so." Clark, she thought, needed to work harder on his poker face as he tried unsuccessfully to maintain a serious expression. "I'm glad you told me not to underestimate you. Have I mentioned that you're amazing?"
"I think you've said so before, but I don't mind hearing it again."
"Well, you are." The look in his eyes made her breath catch. "I owe Herb more than I can ever repay for finding you." He reached out to lay a hand unobtrusively on hers. "You're incredible."
"All part of the job," she said, trying to speak lightly. Instead, the words came out weighted with meaning. "Anybody who tries to mess with my partner is going to have to go through me to get to him."
"And anybody who tries to mess with my partner is going to have to go through me," Clark said quietly. "It's a two way street."
"Sounds like a good arrangement to me," she said.
He squeezed her hand lightly and released it. "I'll reimburse you for that dinner," he said.
"Clark, it's just a dinner --"
"You shouldn't be paying for it. You were working for me," he said firmly. "Let me see what you have on those companies," he added, changing the subject abruptly. "It'll be interesting if it turns out that their parent companies are connected."
"Let's say it won't exactly astonish me if they are," she said.
"Me, either," he said. "Let me see here --"
"You two look like you're scheming about something," Eduardo's voice said. Lois looked up to see their editor standing just behind her left shoulder. "Anything your boss should know about?"
"Let's say we're hot on the trail of our arsonist," Lois said. "We think it's a scheme to get hold of land at fire sale prices."
Eduardo raised his eyebrows. "In Suicide Slum?"
"Believe it or not, yes. It seemed pretty incredible to us, too," Clark said, "but the land where the fires were has already been bought. Now we're trying to find out who bought it."
"Now I've seen everything," Eduardo commented. "Don't let me stop you. Nice Superman exclusive, by the way, Lois. It is an exclusive, isn't it?" he asked, glancing at Clark.
"This time, yes," Clark said. "Why?"
"Some character from the Star just called and complained that you're playing favorites with Lois, here," Eduardo said. "I told him you have your reasons -- and I certainly don't mind if you give exclusives to the Daily Planet, but I'd like to know what they are."
"I guess I'll put a notice in the Planet," Clark said, "just to make sure it's public knowledge."
"Martin from the Star, right?" Lois said.
"As a matter of fact, yes. How did you know?"
"Clark told him that any reporter who had violated the press's agreement with Superman is on Superman's freeze-out list for the next two weeks. I guess he doesn't like to be spanked," Lois said. "That's just tough. Clark gives interviews to whoever he chooses. He's a private citizen."
"Sounds fair to me," Eduardo said. "Smart idea, by the way, Clark. It might get you some peace in your off time."
"It was Lois's idea," Clark said. "And it's my official policy from now on."
"Good work, Lois," Eduardo said. He leaned forward and lowered his voice. "By the way, who is this Charlie King character that you've been working with? I don't recall him ever working for the Planet."
"Charlie is a free-lancer," Lois said. "I'll tell you about him later. You're going to be seeing more of him in the future. Don't worry -- I'll vouch for him."
"Why do I get the feeling that there's more here than meets the eye?" Eduardo said. "All right, but be sure to fill me in later." He straightened up. "Well, don't let me keep you from your work." He glanced around. "Ralph, I still haven't seen that article on the urban redevelopment plan," he said, starting across the room. "Where is it?"
"Uh -- " Ralph hastily laid his doughnut on its napkin. "I'm waiting for a call from my source."
"Yeah, well in the meantime, try something besides propping up the water cooler. I'm sure you have more than one source. Get busy!"
Snow was falling heavily from the sky when Lois and Clark headed for Clark's apartment. Lois's place was officially hers as of this afternoon, and Clark had promised to help her repair and ready it for occupancy tomorrow. Tonight would be the last night she spent at his apartment -- at least, she thought, for the time being. What happened in the future might be another story.
Their research into the companies that had purchased the land in Suicide Slum had produced some surprising results. Every company had been traced ultimately back to one of the companies that answered to LexCorp. Lois had opened her eyes at that at first, but Clark had been less surprised.
"You remember what I told you back when we first met," he'd said. "James Olsen bought the Planet from Lex Luthor after there was some kind of corporate scandal. I don't know exactly what it was -- it got hushed up. But it means that Luthor isn't exactly squeaky clean, even if he's pictured as this great philanthropist. I think we need to look into the connections a little more deeply."
"I agree," Lois had said. The little tingle that she always felt when she realized that she could be onto something very big and probably illegal was running up and down her spine. Lex Luthor? If they could prove that the billionaire business magnate was involved in something criminal, it might be bigger than the gun-running story had promised to be. "But first we've got to stop the arsons. That means Superman has to find out who's behind the robberies, and then we can start a surveillance operation on him -- and maybe catch him in the act of planting some of his incendiary devices."
Clark nodded. "Sounds like a plan of attack." He looked at the clock. "But right now, you and I have places to go and people to see. The Countdown party starts in about three hours."
The curtain of snow made it considerably easier for them to escape notice when they entered the building, and Clark set her down in his living room with a triumphant gesture. "Here we are."
"I'll go get that shower," she said. "We want to get there early. Superman's probably going to be busy tonight, what with the snow and the fact that it's New Year's Eve."
He grimaced. "I'm afraid so, but I want to be nearby when you meet Nunk. Am I being paranoid when I say I really don't trust the guy?"
"I think you are, actually," Lois said. "Nunk's a coward. Besides, I could probably wipe up the floor with him."
"Probably, but humor me, would you? Even a rat is dangerous when it's cornered."
She shrugged. "Just so you don't make a habit of it."
"I'll try not to," he promised. He hadn't let go of her hand. "It's just that I looked for you for so long -- and you turned out to be so much more than even I expected --"
She felt her cheeks grow warm. When Clark spoke with that tone in his voice and had that expression on his face, she got a fluttery feeling in the pit of her stomach. It wasn't an unpleasant feeling, however. "Clark, I'm not that terrific."
"You are to me," he said quietly. "And it's not just because you've turned my life around in barely more than a week. It's just that -- for the first time since I was ten, I'm not alone against the world anymore. I've got the most fantastic partner that any man could ever have, and I'm scared to death that I'll lose her."
"You're not going to lose me," she said. "In fact, you'll have trouble getting rid of me."
"I don't want to get rid of you," he said. "Ever."
"Not even when we're old and grey?" she teased.
"Not even then," he said. "If I thought you'd go for it, I'd suggest an even more permanent arrangement."
Was he saying what it sounded like he was saying? "Well -- I might not go for it right now, but there's no reason that we can't see where things go in the future," she said, cautiously.
"I'm all for that," he said. He hesitated. "If I get too intense -- or pushy -- let me know, though, okay?"
"Sounds like a deal to me," she said. They met each other's eyes in silence for several long seconds, and then Lois shook herself. "I'd better go get that shower," she said. "And you'd better watch it, Kent. You could get a girl carried away with that kind of line."
"I hope I do," he said. "As long as it's one particular girl." He grinned a little uncertainly. "If you were smart, you'd run as fast as you can in the other direction."
She patted his arm. "Not a chance. I like a challenge."
"Where you're concerned, I'm not a challenge," he said. "I'm a pushover. On the other hand, there are bound to be a lot of challenges where the two of us are concerned."
"That's okay," she said. "You let me handle those. The media hasn't even begun to realize what they're up against."
"I wasn't talking about that," he said, "but we'll leave it there for now."
The ballroom of the Metro Convention Center was as full as it would hold, Lois thought, several hours later. It was decorated from floor to ceiling, and about the room, several screens were positioned in such a way that everyone could conveniently view the enormous countdown clock, the hands of which now pointed at twenty minutes to midnight. The big glass window that filled one entire wall showed more crowds waiting outside. The many thousands of bundled-up party-goers could be seen dancing and laughing to the strains of music broadcast on loudspeakers for the benefit of those persons who wished to wait out the last minutes until the New Year in the open air.
In one corner of the room, a drink in one hand and a plate of treats fetched for her by Clark in the other, Lois waited for Leo Nunk. The man should be there in another couple of minutes.
Clark waited some distance away as Charlie King. Lois couldn't see him anywhere, but she was quite certain that he had his eyes and ears trained on her. The realization that Clark Kent, the most powerful man on the face of the Earth, thought so much of her, valued her so much -- and probably was interested in her romantically -- was certainly enough to turn any woman's head, and she had to admit that she wasn't indifferent to him. In fact, if she let herself think about it too long she found herself getting all starry-eyed, like a teenage girl with the latest teen idol. And Clark was certainly handsome enough to qualify in that department, too. Not only that, but his fame wasn't just on the movie and television screens. He truly qualified as a genuine hero, and he was as nice in person as the persona people saw when he was interviewed. Nicer, in fact, because Superman tended to be fairly stiff and formal with the press. If she wanted a future with him, she suspected it was hers for the taking. It might not be too smart to let him know it just yet, but she was almost sure that she was going to take it -- if nothing made her change her mind in the next few months.
Someone clearing his throat made her turn around. Leo Nunk stood there, a tape recorder in one hand. When he saw her face, the expression on his own changed to wariness. "Lane? You're the one who called me?"
She nodded. "I have a tip for you, Nunk."
The reporter for the Whisper raised a skeptical eyebrow. "If this is some kind of joke --"
"Not at all." She beckoned him closer into the corner. "I have some information for you. Superman knows about your scheme to try to link him sexually to women."
"Oh?" The Whisper's reporter grinned. "I don't suppose you think you can stop that, do you? It'll probably be out in the morning. Some of the ladies I spoke to weren't -- um -- as shy as others."
Lois smiled. "In that case, you're going to need to come up with some bodyguards."
"Don't tell me the big blue Boy Scout would go for revenge. He doesn't do stuff like that."
"No, of course not, and neither do I," Lois said sweetly. "But I hear that there's a fellow named Vernon Hinkle in New Jersey who wants very much to know where a man named Gary Snoot is living. If your story comes out, I'm afraid that's exactly what's going to happen."
The smug expression on Nunk's face vanished in the blink of an eye, and Lois could have sworn that his face went several shades paler. "What are you talking about?"
"Ever been to Hinkle's website?" Lois asked casually. "There's a very interesting picture posted there -- and an email address for contacting him. I happen to know that -- someone -- has an email all set to send to him if any kind of story like that should happen to appear in the Whisper -- or anywhere else. I just thought you should know."
"Nonsense. I just wanted to give you some information that might help you out. It sounds like something a crusading reporter like yourself should find very interesting. Anyway, that's all I had to say. The rest is up to you."
Nunk took a step forward. "It wouldn't be very smart of you to send that email, Lois."
She stiffened her spine and looked directly back at him. "Really? Did you forget you're not the only investigative reporter in Metropolis? In a loose sense, anyway. Maybe Alicia was a lot luckier than she thought. I can't see why on Earth you'd make any woman want to do anything besides barf, but maybe that's just my taste. In any case, I'd watch what I say and do right now. You're not the only one with a tape recorder. And there are plenty of witnesses. If you've turned in the story, you sort of have a limited time to get it withdrawn -- and if you haven't, I'd burn those notes if I were you."
"And," a voice said quietly, surprising them both, "if anything should happen to Lois, my ethics might be a little more flexible than you think, Mr. Nunk."
Lois turned in the direction of the voice, to see Clark standing there. Charlie King had vanished completely, and Clark looked as un-threatening as he usually did. Nunk, however, seemed to shrink. He swallowed, and then appeared to rally. "You don't scare me."
"Of course not," Clark said, "but I'd keep the thought in mind, if I were you."
"Three ... two ... one ... Happy New Year!"
Lois lifted her glass of champagne, and then found herself floating in the air and being thoroughly kissed. Clark pulled his head back perhaps an inch, smiled into her eyes and then proceeded to kiss her once more. Around them the strains of Auld Lang Syne filled the room.
Slowly, they settled to the floor once more, and Lois glanced around, surprised to see that apparently no one had noticed. New Year's revelers were laughing, singing and kissing friends and strangers impartially, and through the huge window, she could see the fireworks making the night as bright as day.
Clark's arm was around her waist, and he was presenting her with her champagne glass, which she had managed to drop during the kiss. Amazingly enough, it was still brimming with frothy, golden liquid.
"Here you go," he said, and lifted his own glass. "To a brand new year for both of us -- and a brand new life, too."
She nodded and smiled, touching the rim of her glass to his. "Happy New Year, Clark."
He grinned. "I have the feeling that this year is going to be something special."
"So do I," she said. "To Lane, Kent and Charlie. We're going to make a great team."
"Amen," Clark said.