By Nan Smith
Submitted: July 2001
Disclaimer: The familiar characters and settings in this story are the property of DC Comics, Warner Bros., December 3rd Productions, et al, and I have no claim on them, nor do I profit by their use. The story, however, is mine.
Charade is a part of the Dagger series and the sequel to "Vanishing Act".
By Nan Smith
"Clark?" Lois pushed her way through scratchy branches and underbrush, and paused, drawing a breath to softly call her husband's name again. Surely, he would hear her. Even the noise of the night insects and the not-so-distant surf couldn't drown out her voice completely, especially for him. The tall pines towered above her, giants in the darkness, and beneath her feet the leaves shed by the few deciduous trees among the evergreens crunched as she took a step. "Clark?"
Only the night sounds answered her. Ahead, a cricket chirped loudly and then fell silent at the sounds of her approach. Surely he must have gone this way, she told herself. She had seen the form of a tall, broad-shouldered man enter the trees only moments before.
Was she even still going in the right direction? Under the trees, the silver glow of the moonlight was nonexistent, and she was suddenly unsure which way she was facing. The sound of the surf seemed to come from all directions. She moved slowly forward a few steps and whispered Clark's name a third time, only to sputter and spit out a spider web encountered in the darkness.
This wasn't a good idea, she thought. If that hadn't been Clark after all, she could be walking into trouble, especially with all the things that had happened since they'd gotten to Crescent Island, but how was she supposed to find her way out of here? If she yelled for Superman and anyone overheard her, her cover would be blown.
An outboard went by on her left with a tremendous racket and she winced at the sound, but it was the clue she needed. She had turned ninety degrees from her original direction. Lois adjusted her course and started forward. Her heels sank into soft, powdery soil and she stumbled slightly. The beach couldn't be very far away and once she was out in the open she would be able to see. Then she could simply make her way along the shoreline until she was past the stand of trees and she could take a slightly longer detour back to the house.
It was no more than five minutes later that she pushed aside a screen of pine needles and emerged onto the open stretch of beach, gleaming under the moonlight. Breakers rolled a short way out, rushing and curling up onto the sand and collapsing into little eddies of water, edged with foam, that was sucked slowly back into the sea. There was no sign of her husband, but she turned right and began her trek along the shoreline toward the wide path that led back up to the big house on the low hill beyond the trees. She was going to have to change her clothing before she went in to dinner, she thought. The shoes she was wearing were dirty and the hem of her dress was bedraggled and muddy. Mentally, she berated herself. Where had her common sense gone? She'd dealt with difficult situations before without losing her cool. The last thing she and Clark wanted to do was draw undue attention to themselves at this point.
A short distance away something lay on the white expanse of sand, like a bundle of rags thrown carelessly down and abandoned. As she moved toward it, the shapeless mass took on form and outline and she found herself floundering clumsily forward through the powdery substance, her heels sinking into it. One of her shoes fell off and she paused only momentarily to pick it up, barely noticing.
It was the body of a man face down on the sand, limp and lifeless like a sack of flour and there was a dark, irregular patch of something warm and sticky blotching the white shirt between his shoulder blades and all down his back.
"I got that stuff back on Jeffers." Lois Lane dropped a sheaf of papers onto her husband's desk. "You were right. He *did* work for LexCorp. He was the head of LexTravel Cruise Lines. Do you sense a connection here?"
"Could be." Clark looked up at his wife with a smile. "He's become an executive with Caribbean Imports, and we know that LexCorp, and later Luthor's son, dealt with them. I'd say that's not likely to be a coincidence."
"LexCorp has more tentacles than an octopus," Lois said, distastefully. "You think you've killed it, and then another part pops up."
"Well, we don't know Caribbean Imports was actually part of LexCorp -- at least not officially -- but I agree with you in principle," Clark said. "Considering the number of illegal dealings they've been caught in, I'd say that's the avenue to pursue next."
The investigation into Caribbean Imports had been going on slowly but steadily, ever since the time, six months before, that Lois and Clark had uncovered its connection to a group of white slavers and rescued Lois's sister, as well as three other young women, from a warehouse by the docks where they had been imprisoned. Caribbean Imports, as usual, had managed to wiggle out of the incriminating circumstances, but not without the shadow of suspicion falling on it. Subsequently, Interpol's investigation had located dozens of young women of many nationalities in the secret harems of wealthy men in numerous countries, including the United States. So far, the involvement of Caribbean Imports seemed to be only with the transportation angle, and the only persons connected to that appeared to be a group of lower level employees. However, the company had fallen under suspicion of the international police as a result.
"You know," Lois remarked, "if I were a company head, I'd be worried that so many of their lower level employees seem to be involved in illegal activity. It could give the business a bad name."
Clark gave a short laugh, but didn't reply. Neither of them was really under any illusion regarding the company. With its headquarters in the Cayman Islands, in spite of the fact that it maintained an office here in Metropolis, Caribbean Imports had come up too often in the recent past to be mere coincidence.
The elevator doors opened and Lois glanced up to see Ralph emerge. The man still walked with a slight limp, she observed happily, the momento of that same event now six months past. He'd acquired a bullet in a delicate spot and still complained every now and then that he continued to have shooting pains there when the weather was damp, as it was today. One good result from her point of view, however, was that the incident had thoroughly quelled Ralph's desire to pursue Clark in an effort to learn his secrets to acquiring the big scoops. Lane and Kent, he'd stated flatly, were crazy, and were going to get themselves killed one day if they continued to use the investigative methods he'd observed. He'd stick to sex scandals. It was safer.
Perry had said nothing -- pointedly. It wasn't as if their editor hadn't tried to warn him, Lois thought, but it had taken a bullet in the posterior to convince him. Oh well; all was well that ended well. At least they wouldn't have him mucking up their current investigation or anything else that happened to intervene in the meantime.
"I've got Jimmy digging into any other connections between the two companies," Lois said. "Want to make any bets?"
Clark laughed and shook his head. "Not at those odds. If there's anything to find, Jimmy will find it."
Lois thought briefly of the folder of information they were gradually amassing. The owner of Caribbean Imports -- ostensibly a gentleman who made his residence on a secluded estate located on a small private island off the coast of Maine -- had refused to grant them an interview, and his background was strangely cloudy, as was everything important about the company. All the ingenuity of Lane and Kent yielded the most minimal of results, but the evidence was very slowly accumulating to prove that Caribbean Imports might be involved in more kinds of business than it advertised.
The sky was a dull grey color when they emerged from the building some time later. Lois carried six-month old Marta and Clark toted CJ on his shoulders as they walked the two blocks to their car. As usual, Clark scanned the Jeep carefully with his x-ray vision, looking for explosive devices, before any of them got into it. The attempts to blow them up in their car months before had never quite been forgotten.
"No bombs," he told Lois, reassuringly.
"Don't laugh, Clark," she said. "You know as well as I do that with the kids, we can't afford to take chances like that."
Clark didn't answer, but he couldn't resist a slight smile as he unlocked the doors and set CJ into his car seat. Lois was busy settling her sleeping daughter into her own seat and didn't see it. The thought of Mad Dog Lane worrying about safety was ironic, especially since two years before he had been the one imploring her to be careful. Having to care for two children had sure changed her attitude, although at times the Lois Lane of old sneaked through. The new Lois, however, was sure easier for his peace of mind.
Lois started the engine, glanced over her shoulder for oncoming cars and pulled smartly out into the street. A thin mist was drifting down, coating the windshield very lightly, not enough to turn on the wipers, but enough to obscure slightly the vision of an ordinary human. Clark knew enough to keep his mouth shut; Lois didn't like back seat driving from him any more than from anyone else. They maneuvered through the rush hour traffic without incident however, and within a short time had left the business district of Metropolis behind. Clark glanced back at the two children in their car seats. CJ might be seventeen months old now, but he still hadn't outgrown his tendency to fall asleep in a moving vehicle.
"Sound asleep?" Lois asked.
"Snoring," Clark replied with a smile. "I asked Mom if I did that, and she said I didn't, so that's one difference between us."
"That's because he's not you," Lois said, reasonably. "Even identical twins have some differences."
"I guess so." Clark looked back again at his sleeping son, who was also his genetic twin, smiling affectionately. "Would you ever want to have another one?"
"Only if you have the next one," Lois said. The red light they were approaching turned green.
"That would be a definite first," Clark said. "I don't think even Superman could handle ... look out!"
A pickup truck was barreling toward the intersection against the red light, showing no sign of slowing down. Lois jammed her foot onto the brake. "Clark, I don't have any brakes!"
Clark did the only thing he could think of. He opened his door and thrust a foot out onto the street, dragging it along the asphalt to slow their momentum. He was aware of a woman's scream from somewhere -- not Lois, he thought absently -- and then the Cherokee was coming to a halt against the curb. Quickly, he pulled his foot back inside and shut the door.
"Oh, God." Lois leaned forward and rested her head on the steering wheel for a long moment. "That was close."
"Are you all right?" Clark asked.
"Yeah." Her voice was little more than a whisper. "Thanks, Clark."
He glanced back at the two children in the rear seat, noting that neither one had awakened. "That's what's meant by the phrase 'sleeping like a baby'. What happened?"
"I thought the brake pedal was a little soft when we started, but everything seemed to work all right," Lois said. "But when I tried to stop -- suddenly I didn't have any brakes. Where did the truck go?"
"It's gone," Clark said. He glanced around at the small crowd of onlookers that was collecting. "I'll be right back. Superman is going to fly us to our mechanic. I want to know what happened."
"Joe said the brakes were tampered with," Clark told Lois, sometime later. "Someone tried to kill us, all right."
Lois glanced across the room to where CJ was absorbed with the characters on the television. Clark grinned involuntarily at the sight, in spite of the seriousness of the situation. The baby was sitting alertly in front of the screen, swaying his body back and forth in time to a counting song's bouncy rhythm.
She turned back to him, and he could see the faint lines of strain around her eyes. "They weren't very discriminating, were they," she said. "It could have killed CJ and Marta right along with us."
Clark shrugged uncomfortably. He had spent the last forty minutes with Joe Pemberton, their mechanic. "I'm sure they didn't care," he said. "That makes two 'accidents' inside of a week. Coincidence?"
"You know how I feel about coincidences like that," Lois said. "I'm calling Bobby. Maybe he's heard something."
"Good idea." Clark removed his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Who would be after us this time?"
"Who *wouldn't* be?" Lois asked rhetorically, picking up the phone. "Maybe one of the thousands of enemies we've managed to acquire along the way, who swore eternal vengeance against us, has gotten out of the penitentiary or something." She punched a number into the phone and waited while it rang. "Come on, pick up the phone ... Oh, hello, Bobby. It's Lois ... you were? Well, I wish you'd called *before* your afternoon snack!"
Clark waited impatiently while Lois listened to Bobby Bigmouth. Their informant seemed to be in an unusually loquacious mood, even for Bobby, for he saw Lois open her mouth to speak several times, only to shut it again as the man continued to talk. At last, she said, "Thanks, Bobby; we owe you a dinner. I'll phone the Hunan House and charge up one of their Imperial Feasts for you, but next time call before you eat. We nearly got killed an hour ago." She paused, listening. "I'm serious. Thanks for the warning. Bye."
She shut off the phone, then clicked it on again and punched in another number. "Hello? Yes, this is Lois Lane. I need to charge up the usual for...right." There was a pause. "For whenever he comes in to collect. Just put it on my account, okay? Right. Bye."
She put down the phone and looked up at Clark. "Well, that was interesting."
"What did he say?"
"There's a new guy in town, according to Bobby. He's been hired to kill us."
"Bobby doesn't know. He says we've rattled someone's cage and they don't like it. We're bad for business."
"Great. Who have we investigated recently?"
Their eyes met. "Caribbean Imports," they said, together.
"I guess we've gotten too close for comfort," Lois added. She glanced at CJ, still glued to the television screen. "This is serious."
"Did Bobby give you the 'new guy's' name?" Clark asked.
Lois nodded. "Harriman Jones. He's staying at the Lexor, believe it or not."
Clark had raised both eyebrows at the name. "Well, I guess it's a good place to stay if you don't want to be connected with his business. I can't say his name is familiar, though."
"Me, either. Bobby said the guy was out of town talent. Clark --"
"Just a minute." He removed his glasses and did a quick scan of the room. "Good; no bugs. We should have thought about that before."
"We didn't know there was a contract out on us before!"
"No, but we should be careful, anyway. I'm going to make a point of scanning the house when we come home from now on -- just in case." He glanced once more at CJ. "We're going to have to do something about this contract fast. Look; let's call Mom and Dad. They won't mind taking care of the kids for a few days until we can get it sorted out."
"'A few days'?" Lois repeated his words sometime later. "It's taken us months to get as far as we have. What makes you think we can handle it in a few days?"
"Well, I figure we're going to have to go at this in a slightly more unorthodox way," Clark said. "Besides, we know a little more about them than we did even a week ago."
"True," Lois admitted. "What have you got in mind?"
"How do you feel about going undercover?"
"I'd say we go to the source of all this. The head of Caribbean Imports, himself."
"But he knows what we look like," Lois protested.
"So? As you've pointed out to me before, 'you see what you expect to see'. If we find a way to get onto his island, maybe as part of his staff or something -- not together, of course -- he won't expect to see Lane and Kent there. Especially if we change our appearance somewhat, and make it look as if we couldn't possibly be there anyhow."
"And how are we going to do that?"
"Do you trust me?"
"Of course. Do you even have to ask?"
"Not really." He grinned briefly. "Okay, we'll have to get Perry and Jimmy in on this, and if you've got any ideas, tell me. This is just a bare outline, so feel free to make suggestions. Here's what I'm thinking...."
Tuesday was a bright fall day, with a brisk wind that gusted through the streets of Metropolis, blowing off hats, whipping the skirts of women's dresses about their knees and denuding trees of their red and gold autumn foliage.
It felt strange not to be rushing around, readying the children for the trip to the Daily Planet with them, but Lois felt better knowing that CJ and Marta were safe with Martha and Jonathan Kent on their Kansas farm. Any further attempts on their lives would not include the lives of their children, and she knew Clark felt much more confident that he could protect her alone than all three of them from the unknown hit man.
She had been a little surprised at first when Clark suggested the plan he had outlined the night before, but on further reflection she understood. His family was threatened, and he would do whatever was necessary to protect it. If the two of them attacked the problem together, they would undoubtedly be more efficient than either would alone -- and, he would be at hand to bail her out in case she got in over her head, as well. A few years ago, Mad Dog Lane would have been furious at the suggestion that she might need help on any assignment, but now the knowledge that she had a partner who worked with her so perfectly that they might really be extensions of each other was reassuring.
Jimmy arrived a minute early, and pulled up at the curb as they were descending the steps of the townhouse. The car was his pride and joy, Lois knew. He'd bought it for barely more than scrap-metal prices and worked lovingly on it after work and each day off -- when he wasn't dating, of course -- until it looked and ran like new. Clark opened the front passenger door for her and stood back, letting her enter, then closed it and got into the rear seat.
"What happened to your Jeep?" Jimmy asked as he pulled carefully out into traffic.
"It's in the repair shop," Clark said. "Someone messed with the brakes."
"You mean somebody tried to kill you?" Jimmy looked worried. "Are the kids all right?"
"Yeah. They're staying with relatives until we figure this out," Clark said. "That's what we need to talk to you and Perry about when we get to the Planet."
"Sure. I'll do anything I can to help."
"Thanks, Jimmy," Clark said. "We're going to need some research done, and maybe more. This could turn out to be a little complicated."
"What's going on?" Jimmy asked. "You sound like it's more than the usual whacko out for revenge."
"It is," Lois said. "We've got a hit man with a contract on us."
Jimmy's lips pursed in a soundless whistle. "That's bad. Do you know who hired him?"
"We're pretty sure we know," Clark said. "You know that investigation we've been on for the last six months?"
"That's the one," Lois said. "We've apparently gotten too close to something, so they're trying to eliminate us."
"But you've got a plan, right?" Jimmy asked.
"You bet we do," Lois said. "We'll tell you all about it at the office."
"You're sure you two can handle this?" Perry was saying, forty-five minutes later.
Lois nodded vigorously. "It's the only way we can get the evidence fast enough to do any good. This hit man --"
Their editor held up a hand. "Easy there. I agree."
" -- Has probably tried to kill us twice in -- you agree?"
"Sure," Perry said. "You're right. And besides, if this pans out, the Planet will scoop every newspaper in the country."
Clark had to work to keep his expression straight. He'd figured they could convince their boss to go along with the plan but not without an argument, at the very least. The ease with which they had won their point brought up a suspicion he'd been harboring for months, but he didn't voice it. If it was true, Perry obviously had no intention of saying so and apparently didn't want him to mention it, either.
"All right," Perry said. "Let's get started. Jimmy, you know what they need you to find, so get busy. In the meantime," he added, looking straight at Lois, "you stay in the office, out of sight. I don't want this Jones guy jumpin' the gun before we're ready."
Lois glanced uncertainly at Clark and nodded. "Okay."
"Good. Go on, now. There's no time to waste."
"I'm on it, Chief." Jimmy headed for his desk and Lois got slowly to her feet. Perry smiled a trifle grimly.
"Just see that you come out of this with a whole skin, you two. Don't worry about me. I'll do my part." Perry lifted an eyebrow at Clark. "You sure came up with a plan fast after you found out about Jones."
"Um --" Clark ducked his head. "Not really, Chief. Ever since we found out where Alejandro de Los Rios spends most of his time, I've been trying to figure out how to get close to him. I've been looking for an angle, and I finally found it. For some reason, he periodically invites parties of people to his island: apparently wealthy businessmen and their families. Maybe he's trying to make business contacts, deals -- who knows?" He shrugged. "Anyway, it seemed like a reasonable opportunity for us. This only speeded things up a little. The guy has a good-sized staff, and he often brings in temporary personnel -- always from the same agency."
"It sounds like you've already done some research," Perry said.
Clark nodded. "Just some preliminary stuff. I was going to ask Jimmy to start digging into it today anyway, but after yesterday we're going to have to rush the agenda a bit."
Perry nodded. "Okay. Just make sure you keep me in the loop as much as you can." He glanced at his watch. "I've got a meeting with the suits upstairs in five minutes. I'd better get movin'." He hoisted himself reluctantly out of his chair. "I hate these things."
It was something over two-and-a-half hours later that Jimmy approached Clark's desk. Clark had been in and out of the office twice during that period and was in the process of writing up one of Superman's more spectacular rescues when the young computer expert set several sheets of printout on his desk.
"I think I might have what you want, CK. Look at this."
Clark picked up the sheets. "What have you got here?"
"Well, apparently they've got some kind of big shindig coming up in a few days. They've asked for an assistant chef for a two week assignment, and I have the guest list here."
"Do I want to know how you got hold of that?"
"The guy apparently always makes travel reservations for his guests via the Internet. You don't want to know the rest."
"You're right, I don't. Have you found a position for Lois?"
"Not exactly. The only position is for the chef. But there's a possibility. Look here." Jimmy extracted a printout of a photograph. "This guy, James Riley, is the new whiz-kid head of . As you can probably tell, it's an Internet company, and he's the founder. He's one of the people on the guest list, and as far as I can tell, he's never been to Crescent Island before. His company's only been in existence for about a year, but it's been a real success. That's the only picture of him I was able to find, too. Apparently he avoids the media like poison."
Clark glanced at the picture, then took a second, longer look. James Riley appeared to be in his early twenties, and bore a superficial resemblance to Jimmy. His hair was shorter, and of a lighter color, but there was a certain likeness between the two.
"Jimmy, you're not thinking what I think you're thinking."
"Look at the stuff I dug up on him, CK. He has a...um...girlfriend."
Clark scanned the printout quickly. "Kellie Davenport? Jim, she's not a girlfriend. She's a mistr -- companion."
"Yeah, I know." Jimmy had the grace to blush. "But she's about five years older than him, and --" He paused, swallowed and continued, "Lois could pretend to -- you know -- be my girlfriend. I'll do everything you say, and stay out of the way. And I do know computers. It isn't as if I couldn't play the part so you and Lois could do whatever you need to do." He added, "And it *is* kind of urgent."
The problem was, Clark realized, he was right. It was an emergency, and they didn't have a lot of time. Still he said, "Jimmy, I hope you're kidding."
Jimmy shook his head. "I'm not. Don't you think I can handle it?"
"It isn't that," Clark said, "but it's going to be dangerous."
"I know. But it looks like the only real option we've got on this short notice."
"What does?" Lois's voice said, behind them.
Neither man had heard her approach. Clark saw Jimmy grow slightly paler. "Uh, we have a little problem," he said. "There's only one opening for an employee -- an assistant chef."
"Well," Lois said, "That's not someone I can impersonate. There's got to be a way to get me on the island. What were you talking about a minute ago?"
Clark glanced wickedly at the suddenly silent Jimmy Olsen. "Well, there *is* one other possibility...."
"You're kidding me," Lois said.
"I'm afraid not." Jimmy looked apologetic. "Lois, you *know* I'd never try to take advantage of the situation!"
Lois looked at Clark, who shrugged eloquently. "This looks like our only shot, honey."
She took a deep breath. "All right, if that's what we have to do, then we'll do it. Is there a picture of this bimbo?"
"Um, yeah," Jimmy said, uncomfortably. "Here." He produced another printout. "There aren't many of her, either. This one was taken with a long-distance camera. I enhanced it digitally, and --"
Lois snatched the paper, examining the woman she would be impersonating.
Contrary to what she expected, Kellie Davenport didn't match the image in her mind of the prostitutes she had met in the course of her job here in Metropolis. She was a slender woman, dressed conservatively, even elegantly, in a black, knee-length dress and heels. Her golden-blond hair was styled in a simple pageboy cut and just brushed her jaw line. Lois ran a hand over her shoulder-length hair. "It looks like I'm going to need a visit to the beauty parlor."
"Here's her bio," Jimmy said. "She has a degree in literature from Metro City College."
Lois raised her eyebrows, scanning the printout. "Why would a woman with the education she's got pick this sort of career?"
"Who knows?" Jimmy said. "I understand computers but there's a lot about people I don't get."
"I can relate to that," Lois said. She fixed Jimmy with a basilisk glare. "Just make sure you don't get any ideas, Junior."
Jimmy turned bright red. "Lois, you know I wouldn't do that!"
She saw Clark hide a grin and couldn't control herself any longer. She began to giggle. "Of course I know, Jimmy, but your expression was priceless. I just couldn't resist."
"Okay, you're in, CK," Jimmy said. "I cancelled the request for the chef with the agency and notified Crescent Island that their new guy would be arriving tomorrow. You're Raoul Desrosiers, recently from Paris. I hope you speak French well enough to fool them."
"No problem," Clark said. "How about you and Lois?"
"Mr. Riley's people think the party's been postponed because of a flu epidemic on the island," Jimmy said. "Lois and I still have to visit the beautician, and we're all set." He ran a hand through his hair. "I guess it's time I got a different haircut anyway, but I'm not so sure about the perm."
Clark grinned. "Think of it as educational. The next time Sharon shows up with a new perm and asks how you like it, you'll know what she went through."
"It's Alicia, now."
"Well," Clark said, "the same principle applies."
"Yeah. Oh, well." Jimmy glanced around as their editor approached. "Hi, Chief."
"I'm not sure I like this, Jimmy," Perry said, " but I guess you've got to get your feet wet sometime. You follow Lois and Clark's orders to the letter now, you understand me?" At Jimmy's nod, he turned to Clark and continued, "I've got things set up with the financial office -- just try not to go whole hog. I have to justify this on my balance sheet at the end of the month."
"We'll be careful," Clark assured him. "Lois and Jimmy have to put on a show, but I'm just a lowly assistant chef."
"Well," Perry said, "it's a good thing you made cooking your hobby."
"In more ways than one," Lois's voice said from behind him. "If he had to depend on me, we'd have starved a long time ago." She stepped up beside Clark. "I've tracked down Jones. He's staying in room 912 at the Lexor, like Bobby said. He's originally from New York and has a rap sheet a mile long -- and good lawyers, unfortunately."
"What are you going to do?" Jimmy asked, curiously.
"Convince him he's managed to kill us, naturally," Lois said. "Superman's going to help us with that. The guy has to report back to his boss that we're dead, so no one will even consider that we might be on Crescent Island." She glanced at Clark. "But if he gets one scratch on our Jeep, I'll murder him, myself!"
"Good as new," Joe Pemberton said, handing Lois the keys to the Kent Jeep. They were standing by the door to the repair shop's office. In front of them, gleaming in the sunlight, sat their Jeep.
"Thanks, Joe." Lois glanced at her husband who was standing, hands in his pockets, regarding the Cherokee with a thoughtful expression.
"Oh, by the way," Joe said, "your insurance man was here, looking at the Jeep this morning. Asked me a bunch of questions about it. I thought you said you weren't going to call them."
"I didn't call them," Clark said, after a short pause. "Did you, Lois?"
"No," Lois said. "What did he look like?"
Joe shrugged. "Just like anybody. About six feet, give or take an inch, brown hair, I think, brown or blue eyes -- I didn't really notice. If it wasn't your insurance man, who do you think it was?"
"That's a good question," Clark said. "Was he alone with the Jeep for any of the time he was here?"
"Yeah, he was. I had to answer the phone. I was only gone a few minutes, though." Joe looked worried. "You don't suppose he was the guy that messed with your brakes, do you?"
"Could be," Clark said, slowly. He turned back to the Jeep and Lois saw him lower his glasses. After a moment, he shoved them back onto the bridge of his nose. "Look, Joe, don't worry about it. If it was just a couple of minutes, I'm sure he didn't have time to do anything serious. He'd have been afraid you'd come back and catch him. Besides, I reported what happened to the police. That's probably who it was."
The mechanic hesitated. "I dunno. I'm pretty sure he said he was an insurance investigator. Mebbe I should look it over one more time before you take it."
It was fairly obvious to Lois that Clark didn't want Joe to check the Jeep over again. She stepped into the breach. "I think I know who it was," she said. "Don't you remember, Clark? Henderson said they're investigating an auto insurance scam some group is running. He was going to check out our accident, too -- just to rule it out."
"Oh," Joe said. He looked relieved. "Sure, that must have been it."
A few minutes later, Clark turned the Cherokee out onto the street. Lois hadn't objected when he'd removed the keys from her hand and gotten behind the wheel, but now she asked, "What's going on?"
The corners of his mouth twitched. "I didn't want Joe to spoil our opportunity."
"So Jones did tamper with something."
Clark nodded. "The front wheel should come loose after while. That's why we're headed for Briar Canyon Road. I think I can stage an accident there and still save the Jeep."
"I hope so. I don't think our insurance company would be very happy if they had to replace it twice in two years."
"You're probably right," Clark said. "When we skid, just hang on tight, okay?"
Lois nodded. "With you in charge, I'm not worried. Not much, anyway."
"Good. We've got a tail, by the way. I suspect he wants to be sure this time."
"See the blue car about a hundred yards back ... wait until he comes around the corner. There."
Lois watched their pursuer in the rear view mirror for a moment. "I'd like to be able to bring this guy in, too -- just as a bonus."
"Well, you never know, we might be able to," Clark said. "Stranger things have happened, but right now let's just stick to the plan." He lowered his glasses and glanced at the front left tire. "The wheel is wobbling. I'm going to have to do a little lifting if we're going to make it to where I want to be."
"What do you --" Lois was beginning, then she saw what he meant. Clark was floating upward, to hover a few inches above the driver's seat, and now he pressed one hand to the roof of the car. The sound of the wheels on pavement died, and she knew he had lifted the Cherokee slightly so that they floated a fraction of an inch above the surface of the road.
Unless someone was watching closely, no one would realize what was going on. Lois glanced in the mirror, noting that their tail was still at least a good hundred yards behind them. From Clark's expression, she could tell that he was concentrating hard on his task as he guided them toward his chosen destination. She didn't speak, preferring not to distract him, but what her husband was doing left her a little breathless. They'd been married just over two years now, and known each other for much longer, but sometimes he still managed to take her breath away with his abilities.
It was barely twenty minutes later that he lowered them to the road again. They were on the Briar Canyon Road. To their left, the ground on the opposite side of the road dropped sheerly away, and two hundred feet below tumbled the water of the Metropolis River, a tributary of the larger Hobbs River, which lay farther to the south. On their right, a cliff wall rose almost vertically, bare rock, dotted by shallow pockets of soil where here and there an adventurous shrub or vine had somehow taken root.
"Here goes," Clark murmured, and twisted the steering wheel sharply. The mistreated tires screeched as they veered across the road. Out of the corner of her eye, Lois saw for an instant, the bouncing form of their front wheel hurtling off into space, and then they followed it.
It was only by the exercise of a good deal of self-restraint that she stifled a squeak of alarm. Clark had the situation under control, she knew, but he made it look convincing as they plunged over the brink and out of sight of observers.
Then they were flying so fast that the river, now only a few feet below them, passed in an indistinct blur to her eyes, and she was sure that it wasn't her imagination that the floor under her feet grew distinctly warm. It continued in this fashion for less than a full minute by her estimation -- which, she admitted, might be a little off -- and suddenly they were in the dark. She blinked, trying to force her eyes to adjust.
They were in a garage, she realized, just as Clark turned on the dome light. In fact, they were in Perry White's garage. She let out the breath that she hadn't realized she was holding.
Clark glanced over at her, a slight look of concern on his face. "Are you all right, honey?"
"Sure." She drew a shaky breath, and then another. "Wow. Even after all the time I've known you, you still manage to surprise me, sometimes."
"Sorry," Clark said. "I had to make sure he didn't see us. Now, with any luck at all, he'll think we went into the river. And since he was the only witness --"
"No one will report it to the police or anything," Lois said. "I'm glad of that. I really didn't want to explain this to my parents."
The door that led to the White's kitchen opened suddenly, and Alice White looked through. "Lois? Clark? Oh, thank goodness, you're here. Perry called me. Did everything go all right?"
Clark turned off the dome light and opened his door. "It sure did, Alice. Did you get the things he wanted?"
She nodded. "Yes. What's going on? Perry didn't explain anything."
Lois opened her own door and slid her feet to the ground, not in the least surprised to discover that her legs were shaking slightly. "It's a long story. We'll tell you about it while Clark does my hair for me...."
Alice glanced at the front of the Jeep. "You look like you've been having adventures," she said.
"Did Perry tell you someone is trying to kill us?" Lois asked.
"No." Alice shook her head and led the way into the kitchen. "He only said you had to hide the Jeep here for a few days. Knowing you, I figured something dangerous was going on. What exactly happened?"
"Has Perry said anything about our investigation into Caribbean Imports?" Lois asked.
"You mean that company that was involved with the white slavers you exposed back in April?" Alice asked. "I didn't know you were investigating them, but I'm not surprised. Perry never thought they were as innocent as they claimed, and he's not the editor of the Daily Planet because he can yodel."
Lois had to smile. "That's for sure. Well, they've sent a hit man after us. We must have gotten too close or something."
Alice drew in her breath. "Are CJ and Marta all right?"
"Yeah," Clark said. "Superman flew them out to my parents in Kansas. They're safe until we get this figured out."
"That's a relief," Alice said. "What happened to your Jeep?"
"Oh, that," Clark said. "I told Perry this morning that we were going to stage an accident if we had to, but it turned out that the man trying to kill us cooperated by sabotaging our wheel." He gave her a brief, suitably edited version of the last thirty minutes. "Naturally, Superman had an eye on us," he concluded. "He caught us when the Jeep went off the road and flew us here. The guy probably thinks we're at the bottom of the Metropolis River right now."
Alice nodded her approval. "Good. So, what happens now? You can't hide forever; not that I think you're going to -- judging by the hair color and the other things Perry told me to get. I've got it in the guest bathroom. This way."
They followed her up the stairs. "We're going undercover on the estate of the company's owner," Lois said.
Their boss's wife glanced back over her shoulder at them. "You two be careful," she said.
Clark gave her one of his brilliant smiles. "We will."
Crescent Island, seen from above, was actually shaped like a rough crescent. It wasn't large, and a good part of it had been landscaped carefully. Clark Kent, a.k.a. Superman, soared above the island, masked by a thin layer of clouds as he surveyed his destination.
Lois and Jimmy would be arriving in a few hours. Chef Raoul was due at Crescent Island's private dock in fifteen minutes. He changed course toward it, leaving the island behind.
There was a large, sleek black motorboat waiting for him at the dock when he strode down the weathered pier ten minutes later, clutching a modest bag and correctly attired in a grey suit. A small, neat mustache and beard adorned his upper lip and chin. The man at the wheel of the boat glanced up at him with a businesslike expression. "Raoul Desrosiers?"
A frown. "Do you speak English?"
Clark nodded. "Yes," he said, in accented English. "I believe it is a requirement of the job."
"It is. Put your bag in here and get in. I've got a schedule to keep."
Friendly bunch, Clark thought, descending carefully into the craft. The other man didn't glance at him again, but set the boat in motion almost before his passenger was seated.
The trip took a little over half an hour and was accomplished in silence. As they neared the island, Clark viewed it from a different perspective than he had received from his overflight a short time before.
Veiled in mist from the sea, and with the overcast sky above, the island seemed somehow shadowed. A beach of white sand stretched down to the waterline. Behind it, tall pines formed a solid barrier between it and the rest of the land, except for one place where stone steps led upward to a wide, white path that disappeared into the trees. It became visible again beyond the barrier, where it wound its leisurely way up a low hill toward the big sprawling house perched at its summit. To the right, the beach dwindled and disappeared, becoming a cliff of bare stone, and with his enhanced vision unimpeded by glasses, Clark could see white birds of some kind flying in and out of holes in the rock, halfway up the escarpment.
As the motorboat approached, the silent man at the controls veered to port, and gradually the beach fell behind. Beyond a narrow promontory, a wooden pier stretched out into the water, and it became evident that this was their destination. The pilot cut the motor, and they floated gently up beside it. Without a word, he reached out with a boat hook to snag a wooden ladder that extended down the side and pulled them in close to it.
Another man in battered blue jeans and a windbreaker stood waiting, and caught the line that was thrown to him. He cinched it tight around a wooden post, all without a word. Clark's pilot reached out with one hand, grasped the ladder and swarmed onto the pier without glancing at Clark.
Clark tossed his bag onto the dock and followed him.
He ducked involuntarily as a seagull swooped by close overhead, one foot almost brushing his hair as he stepped onto the weathered boards of the pier. The bird's harsh screech seemed to linger in the air for a long minute as he looked after it, then he stooped and picked up his bag.
The sea breeze that brushed his face was heavy with the scent of salt air, and the weathered grey boards underfoot had a gritty feel; salt, he thought. The tiny white grains crunched under his feet like sand. Five or six other motorboats and a single rowboat were moored to the pier, he saw now, bobbing gently in the water, and at some distance, but clear to his better-than-human vision, he could see a boathouse and another dock, much more elaborate than this one. Tied to it were two motorboats that made the one in which he had ridden look shabby, and near the end was moored an elegant yacht with the name "Buccaneer" painted on one side in silver letters. He could see the miniature figures of men in white uniforms moving about on the deck.
"Those are for Mr. de Los Rios's guests and family," the pilot said. "Nobody goes there but authorized staff. This pier is for the employees. Understand?"
"Of course," Clark murmured.
He followed the man in silence up the dock. In a shed that stood nearby, they found a small vehicle similar to a golf cart which took them up a narrow, paved path toward the back of the big house he had seen from the sea. They pulled up into a covered area where he saw that several more of the carts were parked and his driver cut the engine. "We're here," he said.
"So, I see." Clark disembarked and reached back into the cart for his bag. "Where do I go now?"
"Knock on that door," the other man said, pointing. "The housekeeper will tell you." He turned and walked away without another word. Clark looked curiously after him for a moment, then shrugged and strode toward the door.
Lois Lane and James Olsen, alias Kellie Davenport and James Riley, exited the car that had brought them from the airport and stood waiting while the liveried chauffeur retrieved their baggage. Moored at the end of the pier was a large, black craft with an enclosed cabin designed to hold a small convention, Lois thought. Two men wearing matching outfits, who had been standing near the boat, hurried forward, and one of them took two of the bags from the chauffeur. The other turned respectfully to Jimmy and smiled. "Mr. Riley? I'm Robertson, your pilot. I hope you and Miss Davenport had a comfortable trip?"
"It was fine," Jimmy said.
"Excellent. Come this way. I'm afraid the weather is clouding up. We're expecting a slight storm this evening, but we're told it should be clear by tomorrow." He ushered them toward the boat and another man standing in the craft reached out a hand to help Lois down a short ladder onto the deck and through the door of the passenger cabin into its elegant interior. Jimmy followed her, glancing around, but he said nothing.
The pilot smiled politely. "If you'll take your seats, we'll get underway. You're the last guests. Mr. de Los Rios was afraid the storm would arrive before you did." The man turned quickly and disappeared into the pilot's cabin. Lois both heard and felt the engines start up moments later, and then the rocking motion of the craft increased slightly as they eased forward away from the pier.
"Would you like a cocktail?" The man who had taken their bags was speaking.
"Umm -- no, thank you," Jimmy said. "Kellie?"
"No, thanks," Lois said. "How long until we get to the island?"
"About half an hour, Miss -- if the weather holds." The man glanced at the glass of the cabin's round windows -- they were called portholes, Lois recalled abstractedly. At least that was what she remembered from the times she'd been on Lex's yacht, several years ago. Most of her experience with boats didn't involve anything this fancy. Drops of water spattered them, whether spray kicked up by the boat or raindrops she didn't know. Their companion turned casually back to them. "We're getting a little rain, but it shouldn't affect the trip."
True to the prediction, they docked thirty-five minutes later. Two men standing on the pier lowered steps to the deck of the boat and gave Lois and then Jimmy a hand onto the dock. They were ushered into a small, motorized cart, and the driver piled their bags into a second conveyance.
The trip to the house that Lois could see above them in the fading light, was up a narrow but smooth, paved road. They drew up in the concrete circle in front of the house's main door, and stopped.
The door opened, and a man in the uniform of a butler emerged. He nodded at the driver and turned to give Jimmy and Lois a prim and correct little smile. "Miss Davenport and Mr. Riley, welcome to Crescent Island. If you'll just follow Jeffery, he will show you to your rooms."
"Well," Lois said, "I've got to admit, the room's nice."
"And at least they put us in separate ones," Jimmy said.
"With a connecting bathroom." Lois added, dryly. "I'm going to get changed. That guy said semi-formal, so I'm taking him at his word." She glanced out the window at the scenery, only partly visible in the fading light. The house overlooked the hill and the landscaped gardens. Far to the left, she could see a swimming pool; lights reflected off the surface of the water in little rainbow shimmers. Who in his right mind would swim in this weather, she wondered, but concluded that the water must be heated. Still, it wouldn't be her first choice of recreation in October, on an island off the coast of Maine. Brrr!
Over the tall pines, she could see the ocean. The surf was breaking vigorously on the beach, almost ghostly in the dusk, and she could hear the sound faintly through the closed window. The tops of the pine trees were tossing in the brisk wind, and an occasional drop of rain streaked the glass. She made a face.
"What's the matter?" Jimmy asked.
"I feel like I've been stuck in the middle of some cheesy gothic novel," she said. "I used to read that stuff in high school, and this looks just like I imagined all those old houses in the books would look -- the isolated estate with the reclusive owner who's really an axe murderer or something. I sort of expect to go down to dinner and discover that the master's son is actually insane and his wife is plotting to kill the handsome young nephew to keep him from inheriting the family title. Not to mention, there's probably a headless family ghost that walks the halls wailing and wringing its hands and clanking its chain, and scaring visitors for the fun of it."
"How can it wail if it doesn't have a head?" Jimmy asked, prosaically.
"Well, they always seem to in the novels. Besides, that's not the point."
Jimmy snorted. "Do women really read that stuff?"
"Companies wouldn't publish them if they didn't sell," Lois said. She made shooing motions. "Scram, now, Jimmy. I need to take a bath and get dressed."
"Okay." Jimmy turned toward the bathroom door. "Let me know when you're done so I can get a quick shower."
The door had barely closed behind him when there was a brief gust of wind and Clark was standing in the middle of the room, clad in a chef's white garb and a tall, white hat.
Lois raised her eyebrows. "Well, that didn't take long." She ran a finger lightly across his goatee. "Good disguise."
Clark grinned and pulled her into his arms. "But of course, Madame," he purred with what Lois could swear was a genuine Parisian accent.
"Mmm, you Frenchmen," she murmured, and then couldn't say any more because her mouth was otherwise very pleasurably occupied.
After a long, lingering kiss, Clark let her go. "I missed you," he said.
"I missed you, too," she said. "How long have you been here?"
"I got in about four hours ago," Clark said. "I have to be back in the kitchen in a minute. I'm making the dessert. You should enjoy it. It's chocolate mousse."
"Kellie Davenport is allergic to chocolate," Lois said, glumly.
"There's also apple pie a la mode," Clark suggested. "I haven't had a chance to do any snooping yet. I'm told the employees are supposed to stay away from the dock where you came in, but I don't know why. It might just be general policy. Besides, I can't see that any company records are likely to be kept in a boathouse."
"You never know," Lois said. "I might be able to look around there. When do we get to meet our host?"
"At dinner tonight, I guess. So far I've only spoken to the head housekeeper and the guy's general manager. According to them, if my work pleases Mrs. de Los Rios, they might hire me on permanently." He grinned. "I understand the salary is quite generous."
There was a knock on the adjoining door and Jimmy's voice said, "Kellie? Are you talking to someone?"
"Come in, Jimmy," Lois called.
The door to the bathroom opened and Jimmy stuck his head through. His jaw dropped for a moment, and then he closed it with a snap. "Great shades of Elvis!"
Lois and Clark broke out laughing. Jimmy grinned a little shamefacedly.
"Sorry," Lois said. "You sounded just like the Chief. What do you think of him?"
"Wow!" Jimmy said. "I'd never have recognized you! How can you see without your glasses?"
"Contacts," Lois said. "He doesn't like them, but they're useful sometimes."
"Wow," Jimmy said again. "No wonder you guys are such good reporters. You really do anything you need to when you're after a story."
Clark grinned. "Thanks, Jim. I have to get back to the kitchen. I just wanted to let you know where my room is, in case you need to find me. It's in the servants' quarters, Room Seven, in the back of the house."
"You have your cell phone, don't you?" Jimmy asked. "You could call us -- or we could call you if we need you."
"They don't work on the island," Clark said. "I already tried. At least, they don't work for us. I distinctly heard the butler using a cellular phone, and it seemed to work fine."
"That's a little odd," Lois said.
"It sure is," Jimmy said. "I wonder if they have some kind of blocking device."
"Which leads me to wonder why they might not want guests to make outside calls," Lois said.
"We'll find out," Clark said. "Now, I have to go." He glanced meaningfully at Jimmy, who nodded and quickly pulled the door shut.
"Be careful," Lois said.
"I will," Clark said. "I'm in a lot less danger than you. Watch your step, okay?" He kissed her quickly and was gone in a swirl of air.
There were four other couples waiting in the lounge, none of them older than thirty-five. Lois automatically identified them from the pictures Jimmy had given her. Gerald Brown was accompanied by his wife. He was, according to the bio Lois had read, the founder of Northstar Chemicals, a small, but growing company. June Hampton, who had brought her new husband, was the owner and CEO of Practicality, a business journal for the working woman. Horace Blumenthal had founded a small, but locally successful electronics supply chain, and was considering expanding his business nationally. He and his fiancee were due to be married next year. Finally, there was Andrew Filberg, accompanied by his partner, a young man with a studious air. Filberg was the owner of Westwind Horizons, a growing bioengineering firm. The only thing any of them had in common, as far as Lois could tell, was that they were all owners of small, but successful businesses, just as James Riley was. There was the possibility, of course, that the interest in them displayed by the owner of Caribbean Imports was perfectly legitimate, but Lois was willing to bet her pension that it wasn't.
The company was having cocktails when Lois and Jimmy arrived, and they found themselves being scrutinized by the entire group. A tall, well-dressed woman whom Lois didn't recognize came forward to greet them.
"Mr. Riley and Miss Davenport? I'm Mr. de Los Rios's social director. Let me introduce you to everyone here...." The woman proceeded to make introductions, and a young man appeared from nowhere to offer them a tray of drinks. Lois immediately picked up a small glass, with no intention of drinking any of it. She didn't want anything to cloud her attention to detail this evening. Jimmy hesitated a moment, than chose a glass of what looked like Scotch. Lois saw Mrs. Brown eyeing her curiously and smiled at her. She was well aware that most of them would guess what she was supposed to be in short order, if they hadn't already, but that was all to the good.
"James Riley?" It was Blumenthal. The man was tall and dark-haired, with the shoulders of a football player and a wide, infectious grin. "Harry Blumenthal." He thrust out a hand. "I'm glad to meet you."
"Call me Jim," Jimmy said, shaking his hand. "This is Kellie."
"Glad to meet you, Kellie." Harry clearly knew what her position was, but he only smiled. "I hear you're the founder of Futurevision?" At Jimmy's nod, he continued, "I've always been interested in the possibility of online business opportunities. I was wondering if you had any advice for someone in my line of business for expanding onto the Internet --"
Within two minutes, the conversation had drifted completely away from any English Lois knew. She stood surveying the room, although what she might be looking for she didn't know. People stood about in small groups, talking. Behind them, a tall mirror reflected the room, and she studied herself in it. With her blond hair and completely different makeup style, she really looked like another person, which, of course, had been the intent. That, coupled with the report of her death, should make it unlikely anyone would recognize her, even someone she knew, unless they looked quite closely. Jimmy, too, looked more mature with his new haircut and clothing. Someone who knew the Planet's young photographer would have to look closely to see him in the poised, young businessman. The kid was growing up, Lois realized all at once. Her youthful friend had become a man right before her eyes and she hadn't even realized it.
The social director had left the room for some minutes, but now she returned to stand in the doorway. "Ladies and gentlemen, shall we go in to dinner?"
Jimmy gave Lois his arm and the two followed in the tail end of the party as they entered the dining room.
A man was standing near the head of the table, smiling a greeting to his guests, as they appeared one by one. Lois glanced curiously at the mysterious head of Caribbean Imports. The man seemed somehow familiar. Then recognition struck like a bolt of lightning, and she felt slightly dizzy. A lot of things were suddenly explained, and she moved forward with Jimmy, careful not to do anything to draw the man's attention.
How it might be she had no idea, but Alejandro de Los Rios was a dead ringer for Lex Luthor.
Lois paced restlessly in her room. She had slipped away at the conclusion of dinner, as soon as the opportunity presented itself to do so in an unobtrusive way.
She didn't think she had been recognized. She had watched de Los Rios, or whatever his name was, but let Jimmy carry the brunt of the conversation at dinner while she smiled and nodded a lot.
In the beginning, when she had first known Lex Luthor, and even during that horrible time just prior to her disastrous near-wedding to him, his acquaintance with Jimmy had been just that: an acquaintance, and not a very important one at that. Jimmy had changed a good deal since then. He'd put on nearly another inch in height, his shoulders had broadened and he had acquired an air of self-confidence that had been absent a few years earlier. Coupled with his new haircut, the hated perm and hair color, Lois was pretty sure he wouldn't be recognized unless someone was actively looking for him.
It was possible that Lex, in the impossible circumstance that it was actually Lex, might not recognize her either, unless he got up close, but she wasn't willing to risk it. He had known her a lot better than he'd known Jimmy.
But it couldn't be. Lex Luthor was *dead*. Clark had seen him crushed in that cave-in. He had retrieved Lex's lifeless body himself, identified it and been there when it was cremated. He was as sure as anyone could be that their old Nemesis was gone for good, and she trusted his judgement.
Lex Luthor was like his company, though. You thought it was gone and it turned up somewhere else, but even Lex couldn't rise from the dead...at least not again; not after that. Once was enough for any man.
What was she *thinking*? There had to be a rational explanation for this, she told herself, determinedly. Lex *hadn't* risen from the grave like the proverbial vampire, returned to prey on the living. Some things simply couldn't happen no matter how many miracles of science one had at one's fingertips.
So, who was Alejandro de Los Rios? If he had been the head of Caribbean Imports all along, it couldn't be Lex...could it?
Could it possibly be the Luthor clone? The last she had heard of him he'd been sitting in prison, facing twenty-to-life. If he'd gotten out, surely she would have known. Besides, up until a little over a year ago the clone had been in stasis or whatever it was Dr. Klein called it. De Los Rios, according to his very sketchy biography, had been the owner of Caribbean Imports for ten years.
So, it wasn't the clone. Could it be another son of Lex's? She considered that possibility and finally rejected it. This man had his every mannerism, and Lois knew them well. If she didn't know better, she could have sworn the man was Lex. His hairstyle was different, his tightly curling locks tamed with a short, modern cut, which was why it had taken her a second look to realize what she was seeing, but in all other ways he was Lex Luthor. Only Lex Luthor was dead. She repeated the phrase in her mind like a mantra -- or a prayer. Lex Luthor was dead and he couldn't harm Clark or her ever again.
Her thoughts churned in circles, but in the end, she was no closer to a solution than before. Whatever the answer to this puzzle might be, she didn't have it -- at least not yet. Nothing she came up with seemed to make sense, but there had to be some kind of explanation, somewhere. They just had to find it.
And where was Mrs. de Los Rios? Clark had said they'd told him that if Mrs. de Los Rios was pleased with his work they might want to hire him on a permanent basis, so there was a wife somewhere -- unless she was this man's mother or something. And, of course, there was always the possibility the woman didn't exist. At this point, Lois was willing to believe just about anything. The situation was weird no matter how you looked at it, but one thing remained unchanged. Caribbean Imports was connected with far too many kinds of criminal activity for it to be a coincidence -- including three attempts to kill Clark and her. Come to think of it, that was completely consistent with LexCorp, as it had been, except for the last. Lex wouldn't have tried to kill her. So, where did this line of reasoning leave her?
Back at the beginning, she admitted ruefully. It just meant that their instincts had been right. There was something very odd going on here on Crescent Island.
By the time Jimmy returned to their rooms Lois was as close to climbing the walls as she had ever come. She wouldn't be able to contact Clark while he was still on duty in the kitchen, and snooping around while the staff was still so active seemed unwise, especially since her excuse for leaving early -- in case anyone asked Jimmy about her -- was that she had developed a migraine as a result of the weather. When she heard him enter his room, she hurried through the connecting bathroom and knocked on his door.
He must have been expecting her for he opened it almost at once. "Come on in."
She did so, closing the door quickly behind her. He looked at her in a little concern. "Lois, are you okay?"
"Of course I'm okay!" She paused and took a deep breath, trying to force her voice under control. "Sorry. I'm a little upset."
"I don't blame you." Jimmy pulled off his tie. "Lois, that couldn't actually *be* Luthor, could it?"
"I don't see how," Lois said, trying to sound certain.
"But he came back before."
"Yeah, but Superman saw him die! He was *cremated*! There was nothing left to regenerate!"
"Yeah. It does seem pretty unlikely, and if it were anyone but Luthor I'd be certain. Does CK know?"
"Not yet." Lois started to pace again and reminded herself to relax. It just couldn't be Luthor. It was a physical impossibility.
"I'd like to know what he thinks about it." Jimmy sat down on his bed and ran a hand through his hair exactly like Clark did when he was worried about something. "Lois, did it occur to you that it might be another clone?"
It hadn't, which told her how upset she'd really been. She shook her head. "How could someone have produced another one?"
Jimmy began to unfasten his jacket. "Well, maybe Luthor did it for some reason." He got up slowly and went over to the closet to hang up the item. "Look, I'm reaching here, okay? He made the Lois clone -- or his people did -- and the one of himself, and the two he was going to shift both of you into, and the baby clone of Superman that the other Luthor clone thought was CJ, and that no one ever found. Why couldn't he have made a spare?"
Lois found herself staring at her younger colleague in astonishment. "Wow, you get almost as complicated as I sometimes do when I talk. You might be right. But de Los Rios has been the head of Caribbean Imports for ten years. How could he take the guy's place and not get caught?"
"Maybe that's why he never leaves the island," Jimmy hazarded. "And, that there aren't any pictures of him that I could find. If none of the company's old employees ever see him --"
Lois frowned thoughtfully. "Well, if he's a clone of Lex, with Lex's memories, he'd be smart enough to do it, so I guess something like that could have happened. If it did, we're going to have to prove it -- and that the company is up to its collective neck in crime!"
"Just like LexCorp," Jimmy said.
"Yeah," Lois said. "Just like LexCorp." Her eyes widened. "Oh, God, that's what he's trying to do!"
"He's trying to bring back LexCorp -- or something just like it."
They stared at each other in horror for several seconds, then Jimmy said, "Remember, this is all just a guess."
"Yeah, it is," Lois agreed. "I hope we're wrong."
"So do I," Jimmy said. He grinned slightly. "I guess none of us are very rational where Luthor is concerned."
"There's a reason for that," Lois pointed out somewhat dryly. She took a deep breath. "You know, I feel a little better -- now that I know there might be a rational explanation for all this. The thought that he might have come back from the dead again -- not that I really believed it -- kind of makes my skin crawl."
"Yeah, but now we have to figure out what did happen," Jimmy said. "I'll do whatever you tell me to. I don't want to see LexCorp come back -- or Luthor, either -- any more than you do. The guy was a monster, no matter how great he seemed on the outside."
"You don't have to tell me that," Lois said. "Did you know that while I was walking down the aisle, he had Superman trapped in his wine cellar, in a cage with Kryptonite-coated bars?"
"He sure did. He told Clark and me about it later -- that was why he couldn't save Lex when he dived off Lex Tower."
Jimmy shook his head. "Man! I'm just glad Superman got away."
"So am I." She jumped when someone knocked discreetly on Jimmy's door.
"Who is it?" Jimmy called.
"Rogan, sir. I'm led to understand Miss Davenport retired early. Is everything all right?"
Jimmy gestured Lois back into the bathroom, waited until she was out of sight and opened the door. "Oh, hello, Rogan. Yes, she's all right. She has a headache and is lying down. This kind of weather always gives her one."
"Very good, sir. If anyone can be of help, please let us know."
"Thank you," Jimmy said. "I will."
"Good night, sir."
Lois heard the door close and poked her head out of the bathroom. Jimmy glanced at her and put a finger to his lips. Lois nodded.
After a long moment, Jimmy relaxed. "He's gone."
"Who's Rogan?" Lois asked.
"Oh. Well, I'd better get back to my room and get changed. I hope I can find Clark, later. He needs to know about this development."
Jimmy looked at her oddly. "You're not going down there."
"That all depends on whether he comes up here or not. I hope he does. I don't really want to go looking for him."
Clark returned to his room in the servants' quarters and changed out of his chef's gear. He hadn't had a chance to look around the island yet, but he planned to do that as soon as things quieted down a little, which might be awhile. Until then, he put on a pair of casual, dark slacks and a dark shirt, and made sure his mustache and goatee were still secure.
A check of the weather through the window told him that it was still windy and cloudy, with a light sprinkle falling, but there was no rule of which he was aware that said he couldn't take a stroll in the rain if he felt like it. He slipped on a light, water-repellant coat and pulled on a dark cap. Anyone who saw him outside might be surprised, but there was no reason he shouldn't take a look around.
On his way toward the servants' exit, he encountered one of the groundskeepers on his way to his quarters. The man glanced at his clothing without surprise. "Going outside?"
"I thought I would take a short stroll before I go to bed," Clark said. He didn't have to think about his French accent; as long as he was in the persona of Raoul Desrosiers, he would stay in Raoul's character, which included an accent. "I need a little fresh air after an evening in the kitchen."
"Don't go too far," the man warned him. "It's easy to get lost in the dark around here."
"I will take care," Clark promised him. "Thank you for your concern."
The man nodded and went on down the hallway. Clark continued toward the exit.
Outside, in the rear of the mansion -- it couldn't really be called anything else, Clark thought -- floodlights illuminated the immediate grounds, and the faint haze of the falling mist blurred the harsh brilliance of the lamps. Clark strolled casually across the lighted area, hands in the pockets of his coat, clearly making no attempt to avoid being seen. He paused squarely in the center of the lighted area and looked back at the house for a moment, then continued at a leisurely pace until he had left the lighted area behind.
Even then, he didn't abandon his open, unhurried attitude. He was already aware that things were not as they seemed on this island. It was quite possible that there might be other methods of monitoring his progress of which he was unaware, at least so far, and so he sauntered down the driveway, still with his hands in his pockets, glancing around with an air of interest.
It was very dark here in the open. Above, clouds covered the sky and the mist continued to drift downward, neither intensifying nor decreasing. Clark stayed on the driveway, but moved steadily away from the house. Finally he stopped and stood still. The noise made by the other occupants of the house was far enough away now that he was able to tune his hearing to more distant sounds and he slowly became aware of something. So unobtrusive that it had been masked by the chatter and activities of those in the mansion, and only barely audible over the sounds of the wind and surf, was a vibration. Too faint to be called a sound, it scraped softly on the edge of his awareness. He strained even his super-hearing trying to locate the source, but he couldn't pinpoint it. It was as if it came from all directions at once, a steady, very, very faint, muffled hum.
It wasn't the house's generator. He'd been aware of that since he'd arrived this afternoon. This was something else, and his curiosity was aroused. He pivoted slowly, trying to tell if there was a direction in which it was slightly stronger, but even for him it was impossible to be sure. The normal sounds of the island almost entirely drowned it out.
He was listening so hard that he almost missed the sounds of approaching footsteps in time not to seem startled when a dark shape rounded the turn of the driveway. A flashlight came on, and after a moment of erratic searching, came to rest on him. A male voice said, "Mr. Desrosiers?"
"Oui," Clark said.
"You really shouldn't be out here at this time of night." The voice belonged to a man wearing a raincoat with "Security" emblazoned on the left breast. "If you were to get hurt, Mr. de Los Rios would consider it our fault. Will you please go back to the house?"
The sentence was phrased like a polite request, but Clark could hear the command underlying the courteous words. He nodded.
"I needed fresh air after all evening in the kitchen," he said, calmly. "I was just about to return."
"Good," the other man said. "I'll come with you, to be sure you make it all right."
"There is no need," Clark replied, "but you are welcome to -- how do you Americans say it? -- 'come along' if you wish." Unhurriedly, he turned around and started uphill toward the mansion, all its windows alight and welcoming in the darkness. How deceptive that might be, he thought to himself. They certainly didn't want people walking about unsupervised around here. After things got a little more settled for the evening, he intended to go see Lois. Now that they had both seen a little of the lay of the land, they needed to make a few plans.
Lois shifted around uncomfortably in the big bed, adjusted her pillows for the third time and finally put down her romance novel with a sigh of impatience. She just couldn't concentrate on the escapades of the heroine and her black-sheep boyfriend. The vision of Lex's handsome face kept rising up between her and the print.
She glanced at her little traveling alarm clock. The hands said it was eleven thirty-nine. If Clark didn't show up pretty soon, she was going to have to go out and try to find him. It was just as well that she couldn't have slept if she'd tried, in spite of the incredibly comfortable mattress and the mound of large, fluffy pillows. She couldn't go hunting for Clark until most of the staff was abed, and she was pretty sure they would still be up and around for awhile yet.
She glanced at the elegant little bedside lamp and sighed again. How was she going to get any sleep at all tonight? The dinner with Alejandro de Los Rios had thoroughly spooked her. Just the thought of Lex sent chills up her spine. There were only two persons in the world of whom she was truly afraid, she admitted reluctantly to herself, and Lex was one of them. Considering everything he and his sons had done to Clark and her, even the possibility of his return -- or, more probably, that of his clone -- was enough to cost her a night's sleep. She wished, frankly, that Clark could spend the night in the room with her. Sleeping next to him would chase away the ghosts.
There was a faint tapping at her window. Looking up, she could see the silhouette of a tall man floating just beyond the glass. Instantly, she switched off her reading lamp and scrambled out of bed to open it. The little night-light on the opposite wall shed a pale glow, giving her just enough illumination to avoid bumping into things. She fumbled with the catch and pushed up the glass pane. The screen presented a little more difficulty, but at last, she had it loose and Clark, clad in dark clothing, stepped over the sill.
He took the screen from her and replaced it carefully in the window, closed the curtains then turned and pulled her into his arms. Lois kissed him back almost frantically, burrowing tightly against him, almost surprised at herself.
It certainly surprised him. After a long moment, he drew back and looked down at her in some concern, his face shadowed in the dimness. "Honey, are you all right?"
Lois drew a shaky breath and nodded. "Yes. I don't know why I'm acting like this."
His eyes narrowed, and he reached out to snap on a table lamp. "Lois, I can hear your pulse beating like a drum. What's wrong?"
She laughed a little shakily. "I can't fool you, can I? Clark -- are you absolutely sure Lex died? It couldn't have been a mistake, could it?"
He shook his head. "It wasn't a mistake. He died. What's this all about?"
"De Los Rios," she said. "If he isn't Lex, then he's a clone of Lex."
She felt him go completely still for an instant, and then his arms tightened around her. "No wonder you're upset. Tell me what happened."
There was a knock on the connecting door. Clark turned his head. "Come in, Jim."
The door opened and Jimmy entered. "Did Lois tell you?"
Clark nodded. "What happened?"
"Clark, he looked just like Lex." Lois made no move to extricate herself from her husband's embrace. In a way, her own actions amazed her. Here she was, an independent, liberated, modern woman, depending on her husband for comfort when she was frightened. "He even *acted* like him."
"He did," Jimmy said. "I don't know how to describe it, CK, but if I didn't know it was impossible, I'd have sworn it was him."
"Okay, I believe you," Clark said. "What did you do?"
"Well, as soon as I could after dinner, I came up here," Lois said. "I was afraid he'd recognize me. Jimmy stayed with the others."
"What happened after Lois left?" Clark asked.
"We went into the sitting room," Jimmy said. "They served us after dinner drinks -- it was somewhere about then that Lois left. De Los Rios sort of circulated around, just socializing, but I kind of got the impression he was feeling us out."
"Feeling you out? About what?"
"I'm not sure," Jimmy said. "He was talking about Caribbean Imports branching out, and diversifying into other areas."
"That makes sense," Clark said. "He wasn't talking about partnerships or anything, was he?"
"No...not exactly. I think he was trying to find out, without saying so, who might go along with something like that."
"What did you do?" Clark asked.
Jimmy grinned. "I kind of made semi-favorable noises, just to see what would happen."
"Good idea," Clark said. "See where he goes with it."
Jimmy nodded. "And if that doesn't produce anything, I'll back out at the last minute and see what he does."
"Just make sure you give us fair warning," Clark said. "If de Los Rios is a clone of Luthor, you can bet he won't take it well."
"No," Jimmy admitted. "But we're here to find out what's going on. I have this creepy feeling that there's more to this than just business partnerships."
"So do I," Clark said. "I took a walk outside a little while ago. I hadn't been out there ten minutes when a security guard showed up to take me back. They definitely don't want people running around outside without a chaperone."
"Then whatever they're trying to hide might not be that hard to find," Lois speculated. "Do you think all the employees are in on it?"
"I doubt it," Clark said. "We can't assume anything, though. What we need to do is get out -- without being spotted -- and do some looking around."
"Do you have any idea where to look?" Lois asked.
"Not yet. I told you I'm not supposed to go near the boathouse where the yacht's tied up, but that might not mean anything."
"Well, it's a start," Jimmy said. "What do you want me to do?"
"Just do what you would do if you were a real businessman who's been invited here," Clark said. "We're depending on you to give the two of us cover. But keep your eyes and ears open."
Jimmy gave them the trace of a grin. "I can do that." He added, "I'd probably better go to bed now. If anyone checks, I want to be where I'm supposed to be."
"In that case, you better put up the 'do not disturb' sign," Lois said with a trace of humor. It was amazing how much better she felt with Clark's arm around her. "They think they know why I'm here, after all."
Not surprisingly, Jimmy turned pink. "Lois!"
Lois found herself giggling. "Sorry; I couldn't help it."
Clark laughed, too. "Just think how many of those guys down there envy you, Jim," he suggested.
Clark slapped him lightly on the shoulder. "Sorry. I'll quit kidding you. You did a good job tonight."
"Thanks." Jimmy accepted the praise with a deprecating grin. "I'd better go. G'night, guys."
When the door had closed behind him, Clark put both arms around Lois again. "Are you going to be all right, honey?"
She nodded, aware that her heart was starting to beat fast again at the thought that he was leaving. Clark raised an eyebrow at her. "No, you're not."
She made a face. "I will be. This isn't the first bad situation I've been in."
"I know that," Clark said. "You've got more courage than any two other people I know."
"Except your mom and dad," Lois interjected.
"Well, yes. But this situation is different." He was frowning, and abruptly seemed to make up his mind. "I don't have to be up until five. I apparently impressed the head chef because I've been put in charge of breakfast for everybody, tomorrow. Would you prefer it if I stayed here?" He waggled his eyebrows suggestively. "After all, the servants are going to expect that one of these beds is going to have two people in it tonight -- at least for awhile."
"Well --" She pretended to hesitate. "If it would make *you* feel better --"
"Don't let me twist your arm," he said.
Lois smiled, recalling a very similar conversation some years before in his apartment. She had arrived there late one night seeking his protection from Kyle Griffen, not knowing then that she had come to Superman for help. Instinct had sent her running to her partner, knowing that Clark would die before he'd let anyone or anything harm her. Now, she simply slid both arms up around his neck. "Well, if you don't mind sleeping with a 'kept' woman," she began.
A wide smile crossed Clark's face. "Just as long as *I'm* the one doing the keeping," he drawled. Lois cut him off by standing on tiptoe to kiss him. It looked as if she would be able to sleep tonight, after all.
Clark woke suddenly and completely. He glanced at Lois's traveling alarm, noting that it was barely after two. He had been sleeping for just under an hour.
Lois was sound asleep, curled up against him within the curve of his arm, and the room was completely silent except for the soft whisper of her breathing. What had awakened him?
Slowly he became aware of another sound outside the house. It was the steady downpour of rain. The storm had finally broken. That must have been what woke him up.
Clark adjusted his position in the bed, bringing a slight mumble of protest from Lois, but she settled back into his arms with a little sigh, never waking. He relaxed once more, sliding down toward sleep.
Lightning flashed suddenly, visible even through the curtains, and thunder crashed like a kettledrum almost before the flash had died away. Wow! That one must have been close! Lois lifted her head, her eyes wide. "What was that?"
"Thunder," he said. "Lightning must have hit nearby."
"Oh." She put her head down on his shoulder again.
Somewhere in the house a telephone trilled. Clark was instantly alert.
There was a second ring and a third, and suddenly there was the sound of someone fumbling for the receiver.
"Hello?" The voice was Rogan's. In spite of the hour, the man didn't sound in the least sleepy. "De Los Rios residence."
"I need to speak to Mr. D," a voice said, urgently. "We have an emergency. This is Higgins, sir."
"What is it?" Lois asked.
"Sh. It's a phone call."
"Oh." Lois fell silent.
"Mr. de Los Rios is in bed," Rogan informed the voice, curtly.
"Then wake him up! We've lost power. Everything's on emergency backup, but if we don't get our power back in four hours, we'll lose the whole lot!"
"One moment," Rogan's voice said. There was a click. Clark strained his ears.
Somewhere in the house there was a soft beeping noise. A woman's voice said, "Yes?"
"Madame, I'm sorry to awaken you," Rogan's voice said. "Dr. Higgins is on the line."
"Put him through." The female voice had a distinct English accent. Clark wrinkled his brow, striving to remember where he had heard that voice before.
"Dr. Higgins?" the voice said, "this is Mrs. de Los Rios. What's the problem?"
Lightning flashed again, illuminating the room, followed by an instant explosion of thunder. Unprepared, Clark clapped his hands to both ringing ears. "Ow!"
"Are you all right?" Lois asked, at once. "Clark?"
He felt as if every Swiss bell-ringer that had ever attended a wedding had gathered together to hold a concert in his head. Faintly, some distance away, he could hear a voice speaking from the telephone receiver, and the reply of a female voice, but the ringing in his ears blurred the sound. Then there was a click. The caller had hung up.
Lois woke late after a disturbed night. Clark, of course, had disappeared, but the excellent breakfast delivered to her by the little, uniformed maid bore the unmistakable stamp of his handiwork. She breakfasted in a leisurely way, enjoying his cooking, even if she couldn't enjoy his company, all the while mulling over the events of the previous night.
Clark's hearing had recovered quickly, but the telephone conversation was over by that time, and a quick flight around the island uncovered nothing he could identify as unusual. Whatever Dr. Higgins had been talking about wasn't obvious, even to Superman, assuming it was even on the island. In the end, he had returned and they'd slept soundly the last couple of hours before he had to report for work in the kitchen.
Lois didn't know what plans their host had for them today, but she intended to stay as far away from de Los Rios as she could. Clone of Lex or not, it was likely he had the original Lex's memories, and those almost certainly included her. She took great care with her hair and makeup that morning, making certain that they were as different as she could make them from the hair and makeup of Lois Lane. She chose clothing that she and Clark had selected to be chic, but utterly unlike her usual style, and now she was grateful that they had made the effort. No one must even dream that Kellie Davenport might be anything else but what she seemed to be.
A knock on Jimmy's door established that her junior colleague had already left. She returned to her room, glancing at her bed. It would be obvious to anyone that she had not been in it alone last night. That was just what she wanted, and reinforced the picture she was trying to portray.
With a last glance at herself in the mirror, she opened the door of her room and exited into the thickly carpeted hallway. Another maid was vacuuming, and switched off the machine as Lois paused to speak to her. "Yes ma'am?"
"I'm Kellie," Lois said. "Is there any place I should be this morning?"
"No, ma'am. Mr. de Los Rios went out to check on storm damage from last night, and Mrs. de Los Rios is occupied in her office this morning. We have the big-screen television in the sitting room, and if you wish, there's the swimming pool and the tennis courts and we have a well-stocked library -- and, of course, Mrs. de Los Rios is particularly proud of her gardens, although the summer flowers aren't in bloom anymore. We even have stables, if you'd like to ride!"
"Would anyone mind if I walked around a little outside?" Lois inquired casually. "Of course, I'd stick to the paths. I don't want to get lost!" She giggled. "I need to work off a little of that dinner last night."
"Of course! Just tell Rogan, so he can send someone after you if you *do* get lost. It's awfully easy when you don't know the way around well."
"Thanks. I'll do that," Lois said.
Jimmy was nowhere to be seen when she descended the stairs, but Rogan, the butler, was just emerging from the sitting room. He glanced at her, and paused when she called his name. "Yes, Miss, may I be of service?"
"I was wondering if it would be all right if I went for a walk, just to stretch my legs," Lois said. "I usually walk in the morning to keep in shape." She smiled brightly at him. "I won't get lost if I stay on the paths, will I?"
Rogan didn't smile. His face remained bland and expressionless. "If you stay on the paths, there should be no difficulty, Miss, but it's easy to become lost if you leave them."
"Oh, no, I wouldn't do that," Lois assured him blithely. "This place is so big I'd get turned around in minutes. I have absolutely *no* sense of direction."
Rogan allowed himself a prim, little smile. "In that case, I'm sure there will be no problem. Mr. de Los Rios is understandably concerned that his guests be safe. Parts of the island are quite untamed and it would be unfortunate if you were to have an accident."
Lois gave a realistic shudder. "I'll stay in the civilized part. Roughing it isn't my style."
The butler nodded. "Enjoy your walk, Miss."
"Thank you. I won't be gone long." Lois headed for the main doors, and Rogan hurried to open them for her.
True to her promise, Lois stayed strictly on the system of paths that networked the area around the house. As she walked, she took pains to appear to any observer, to simply be enjoying the sunny, clear day that had succeeded the rain of last night, but she was mentally mapping the area around her. The main path led through a stand of trees, mainly impressively tall pines with peaked tops swaying in the brisk wind. When she cleared the immediate area of the house, she could see that part of the area to the right and rear of the mansion was also heavily wooded. After a moment's indecision, she made up her mind to explore the more open land in front of her first. That should convince anyone who might be keeping track of her that her intentions were entirely innocent. Without further delay, she made her way through the pines to the steps that led down to the white, sandy beach that she had seen from her window the night before. She stood for a moment, apparently enjoying the view, and then removed her shoes to stroll barefooted through the powdery sand.
Today the ocean was a deep blue, and little whitecaps dotted the waves. The sun shone down brilliantly out of a cloudless sky, and a lively wind whipped a light salty spray into her face. Low on the horizon, she could see the indistinct line of the mainland. Off to her left, the beach extended for some distance and then dwindled away to nothing. A sheer cliff rose from the waterline, and she could hear the cries of sea birds as they wheeled and dove in the air about it. There seemed to be quite a colony of them, flying into and out of holes some halfway up the side of the stone edifice. She squinted at them for a few minutes, then turned her attention in the opposite direction. A low promontory extended some distance into the sea, and she recalled that Clark had said that the piers were beyond that. She wanted to get over there as soon as she could and explore them. While it was possible that stray employees were forbidden to roam around the owner's dock for totally innocuous reasons, she wanted to verify that before she gave up on it. Clark had given it a cursory check last night, and reported that a good deal of lead seemed to be incorporated into the structure, but whether that was a coincidence he couldn't say. Locked doors and the presence of two night watchmen and a German shepherd had precluded a more thorough examination, at least at that point. Still, the precautions taken to guard an ordinary boathouse seemed to Lois to be a little excessive.
Slowly, she turned and retraced her way to the stone steps, where she sat for a moment, replacing her shoes, and then ascended to the path that ran from the steps up to the house. Another footpath branched off from the main one toward the right, and after a short pause she followed it. It led toward the cliff that overlooked the sea and wound around the base of the rising land. Green grass gave way to rock some distance up the slope and the angle became abruptly steeper. It looked as if it would be a very stiff climb to reach the summit.
A glint of reflected light from a spot among the rocks above caught her attention. She almost disregarded it for a second, then paused, careful not to look up again. She glanced around, and finally settled for taking a seat on a section of grass that seemed fairly dry. Meticulously, she removed her shoe and shook it vigorously, all the while peering upward through her lashes, trying to spot the source of the reflection.
Movement caught her eye. There was a man seated on a rock, almost invisible to the casual observer, watching her through a pair of field glasses.
Lois replaced her shoe and tied the laces, eyes fixed on her task. It wouldn't do for the watcher to realize she'd seen him. Without another look, she continued on her way, following the little dirt track in the grass. The land was rising slightly as it bypassed the rocky hill and within a few moments she had reached the end, a spot where she could stand and view the ocean from a sheltered, but slightly elevated, position.
She stood still for several minutes, watching the play of the sunlight flashing from the waves, and thinking. Clark had said they hadn't let him walk around unsupervised last night. It was clear that they hadn't let her do so, either. The surveillance was simply less obvious. She wondered how many other persons that she hadn't seen had been keeping track of her progress, and if she would have been intercepted if she had ventured somewhere she shouldn't. What could it be that de Los Rios was hiding? And why, if he had something to hide, would he invite visitors here? She had hoped to find records and possibly other proof of the criminal activity of Caribbean Imports at the man's home base. Obviously, there was something more as well. That phone call last night suggested that something was being manufactured, but what might it be, and where? The fact that the man was most likely a clone of Lex Luthor had already confirmed in her mind the probability that something both illegal and very dangerous was going on, and the care with which he apparently monitored the whereabouts of his visitors told her clearly that there was something more concrete to find, if they could figure out where to look. It had to be pretty well concealed, though, or Clark would have seen some indication of it last night.
After a time, she turned around to make her way back to the main path, humming a careless little tune and remaining sharply alert for anything else that didn't belong. It wasn't likely that she would see anything obvious if Clark hadn't, but he'd been looking for signs of activity, of which there had been none. There might be other, more subtle indications that he hadn't spotted.
But she saw nothing this time, not even a reflection of light from above. She was careful not to glance in that direction at all, instead striding briskly on by. If she was to be able to sneak out unseen later on, they mustn't suspect that she had noticed anything at all.
By the time she reached the main walkway back toward the house, her watch informed her that it was nearly one. Lunch was supposed to be served at that time, and the last thing she needed was to draw attention to herself by being late, so she hurried. Rogan was nowhere to be seen, but one of the servants with which this place seemed to be generously supplied, opened the door for her and directed her to the patio where Mr. de Los Rios's guests were gathering for the midday meal.
Clark finished putting the final touches on the tray of shrimp hors d'oeuvres and turned to check the chilled tomato consomme. The head chef, a slender Frenchman in his late forties, glanced over at him and nodded his approval. "I shall certainly request that you be hired as my assistant on a permanent basis, Raoul. Your skill is almost equal to my own."
Clark smiled at the little man. Rene Didier was a veteran chef, whose cooking skill and organization had impressed him greatly the night before. Clark was able to keep up with him only because of his super powers but, of course, Rene didn't know that. The head chef had been delighted to have an assistant who spoke his language on the staff, and the two had spent the previous evening conversing in rapid-fire French, to the exasperation of the rest of the kitchen workers. "No, my friend," he said, now, "I only did as you told me."
"Will you two speak English?" one of the other men muttered under his breath, but Clark heard him.
Rene didn't, but he gestured to one of the others to take Clark's creation to the guests, who were no doubt impatiently waiting for their lunch, and turned to oversee the removal of the souffle from the oven. "Gently, now," he cautioned. "It must not fall."
Clark glanced in the direction of the patio and noted, with the aid of his x-ray vision, that Lois had arrived. He almost didn't recognize her for a moment, and gave her silent credit for the disguise. Jimmy came forward to meet her, and Clark started to turn back to his job when he saw the doors open again behind Lois and Jimmy, and a woman entered. He gulped.
Arianna Carlin hadn't changed much in four years. She was still a stunningly beautiful woman, and if he hadn't known the kind of person that her beauty camouflaged he might have appreciated her appearance more. He saw Lois glance at the woman, and her whole body stiffened slightly. Then she moved quietly to a seat at one side of the long table and waited while their hostess, who must be the mysterious Mrs. de Los Rios, walked to the head of the table. There was a moment of scraping chairs as the guests sat. Clark waited for some sign of recognition on Arianna's face, but there was none, and with a silent plea to the Fates, he turned back to his job, his ears trained for the slightest suggestion that all was not well outside.
Lois stiffened instinctively when she saw Arianna Carlin. She had known her for a very short time four years ago, but the woman who was Lex Luthor's ex-wife had nearly destroyed her. She forced herself to relax. "You see what you expect to see," she told herself silently. As far as these people knew, Lois Lane and Clark Kent were dead. If she didn't do anything to draw the woman's attention, she probably wouldn't be recognized. After all, Clark had fooled her for two years with a pair of glasses and a little hair gel. Surely, she could do the same with Arianna Carlin, who didn't know Lois nearly as well as Lois had known Clark back then.
Casually, she turned and followed the others to the table. Jimmy took a place beside her, and she saw his eyes fixed on her face. Casually, she placed a hand over his and gave it a light squeeze. He jumped slightly, then his expression relaxed. Lois winked quickly at him.
He gave her the slightest of nods and reached for his napkin. Lois felt herself relaxing as well. Jimmy would be all right.
Later, she couldn't have said what they had talked about at lunch. Arianna mentioned, very sweetly, that "dear Alex" was inspecting damage to the estate as a result of last night's storm, leading Lois to wonder exactly where and what that damage was. Had they managed to get their power back on in time to save whatever "the whole lot" had been? She kept quiet and let Jimmy do any talking that was required. She had to admit he'd surprised her so far; her young friend was calm and poised, and projected a professional image quite at odds with how she usually thought of him. In fact, he was showing quite an unexpected talent for subterfuge. Clark had told him it was his job to provide cover for the two of them, and that was what he was doing.
When the lunch party broke up, Lois retreated to her room to change her clothing, repair her makeup and mostly to think. Jimmy disappeared with the businessmen, while the wives and significant others were temporarily left to their own devices.
Lois went to look out her window at the scene before her. She had to admit the island was lovely, but what lay under the surface wasn't. If Arianna Carlin was involved, and Lex's clone, the criminal history of Caribbean Imports was explained in spades. And was it even Lex's clone? The question had been bothering her since last night. Was it possible that the Lex who had kidnapped her had been a clone, too? Lex had escaped from prison. They had always assumed he had engineered that escape and all the previous and subsequent events -- but what if he hadn't? What if it had been Arianna?
But, that was silly! Why would she have gone to all that trouble? It would have been to her advantage for Lois to marry Clark. Still, the disquieting thought, once established, wouldn't quite go away. If the man who had abducted her from her own wedding and who had died in that cave-in had actually been a clone, it raised a whole bushel of new questions, but it didn't really change anything, at least immediately. Clone or original, Lex would act true to type.
The question that was of more urgency was who was really in charge. If Arianna somehow had the upper hand here, it would explain why the hit man had been directed to kill her as well as Clark. Arianna Carlin had no love for Lois Lane for a number of reasons, the foremost being that Lex had wanted to put Lois in Arianna's place as his wife. No, Arianna wouldn't hesitate an instant at the idea of killing her.
Leaning on the windowsill, studying the scene below, Lois felt a chill pass over her scalp at the thought of what that might mean. Lex had been intelligent and thoroughly evil, but his obsession with her had always given her a slight feeling of reassurance. Arianna Carlin Luthor had all of Lex's evil intelligence, and an abiding hatred of Lois as well. She was going to have to walk very carefully, even more carefully than before.
Deeply immersed in her speculations, she almost didn't notice the single figure of a man hurrying across the lawn in the direction of the beach. She frowned, squinting her eyes, then gave up and fished in her handbag for the miniature opera glasses she always carried.
He had a familiar profile, she thought trying to follow him with the glasses. He was a little chubby, of average height, as far as she could estimate from her position, with greying, curly hair. He seemed familiar, and she was certain she had seen him somewhere before, but she couldn't quite remember the occasion. His quick stride made it difficult to keep his features in the picture, and within a few seconds he had vanished around the corner of the hedge that separated the vast front lawn from the gardens. From her vantage point, she could see the top of his head for a moment before he disappeared from view. Slowly, she lowered the opera glasses, frowning. The sense of recognition was strong, but for the life of her, she couldn't place him. Although she continued to watch for several minutes, the man didn't reappear.
After a time, she went into the luxurious bathroom and readied herself for a bath. The big, circular tub would hold six with room to spare, she thought as she slipped down into the warm, scented, bubbly water. She needed the relaxation after the last couple of hours. Lying back into the tub, Lois rested her head on the side and closed her eyes.
Noises in her room beyond the half-closed door awakened her some time later. Lois opened her eyes, realizing that the temperature of the water had dropped somewhat, although it was still lukewarm. The next thing she realized was that someone was moving around in her room. There was the scrape of a foot on the carpet and a bump, followed by a soft exclamation. The temptation to call out died almost instantly. Someone was searching the room. She heard the door of the closet being opened, and closed a few minutes later. Then came the scrape of someone opening her dresser drawers, and she thanked her lucky stars that she and Clark had taken every precaution before they had set about on this investigation, even to the false identification she'd gotten from Louie. Knowing guys who knew guys had its advantages, as she'd pointed out to Clark.
Still, what was she going to do if the guy came in here?
As she thought of the possibility, the soft steps came toward the bathroom. Lois acted on instinct. "Honey, is that you?" she called clearly.
The footsteps stopped, and she could almost feel the intruder freeze in his tracks. "Jim, is that you, baby?" she called again.
The footsteps resumed, this time retreating quickly. She heard the door to the hall open, and an instant later it closed with a soft click. The searcher had departed.
"Somebody searched your room?" Jimmy repeated. "How do you know? -- not that I don't believe you."
"I was in the tub and heard him opening things," Lois said, a little curtly. She could still feel a trace of the adrenaline rush tingling along her nerves. "After I scared him into leaving I looked around. Some of my things were disturbed -- not much, but I could tell someone had been messing with them."
"What should we do?" Jimmy asked. "The last thing you need is for them to pay a lot of attention to you."
Lois nodded. "True. But an ordinary person would report it. If somebody was trying to check on our credentials and we don't report it, that will make them suspicious, too."
"I don't like it that somebody might be checking on us," Jimmy said. "They could be suspicious."
"Maybe. Or maybe it's standard operating procedure around here and they do it to every guest. These people probably have a lot to hide."
"Yeah." Jimmy paced a few steps. "I guess there's no choice."
"Not really." Lois stood up and turned toward the door. "Let's go. I think we should report it to the butler. With luck, that will take care of it. After all, I might not be completely *sure* there was someone in my room." She winked at Jimmy.
He looked puzzled for a few seconds, then the light dawned. "Oh, you're giving them an out. Good idea."
Rogan was appropriately disturbed at the report and promised to investigate. Even the possibility that someone had entered Miss Davenport's room without permission seemed to shock him to the soul. He assured her that if anyone had been there, the transgressor would be identified. It was possible, he said, hopefully, that a maid had entered the room by error and, when she discovered that she was in the wrong room, was frightened and had fled. Lois agreed that it could have been exactly that way, and she and Jimmy left with the assurances of the butler that the matter would be dealt with.
"Whew," Lois said softly, when they were out of earshot, "I think that went over all right."
"I hope so," Jimmy said. He slipped his arm around her waist as they went up the stairs. The whole idea of so casually manhandling his superior had made him pale when she had suggested it upstairs, but he hadn't argued. They had an image to consider. Lois was aware of the butler's gaze on them from below, and put her arm around Jimmy's waist as well, snuggling up to him. She could see beads of sweat on the young man's forehead and stifled the urge to grin, schooling her expression into one of affection for her companion.
Once inside the room, Jimmy let her go. He wiped his face with the back of his hand and Lois regarded him with a smile. "Do you act like that with all your girlfriends?"
He had turned a dull pink. "No, but they're not *you*."
She laughed outright. "I don't bite."
"Yeah, tell Ralph that," Jimmy muttered.
"But you're not Ralph, Jimmy," she pointed out, reasonably. "Ralph has all the sensitivity of a rhinoceros. Somehow, I don't think you'd even consider trying to take advantage of the situation. Take it easy."
Jimmy relaxed a little. "I guess not."
"I *know* not. We're doing a job: that's all. So, what's been going on with you and the other guys? Do you know what de Los Rios is after?"
"I think so," Jimmy said. "He's been talking about possible cooperation between the companies. I'm not completely sure, but I think what he's got in mind may be illegal."
"Big surprise there," Lois said.
"Yeah. He hasn't come right out and said so yet, but some of the others are looking a bit doubtful about it. I wonder what he's going to do if they say no."
"Lex never took no for an answer," Lois said. "I'm sure he's got something in mind to deal with them, if he has to."
"But if he wants to force them into cooperation with him, what can he do?"
"I'm sure there are plenty of things," Lois said, a trifle grimly. "Lex never worried about a little thing like uncooperative business partners. If they won't go along with him, he'll have a backup plan."
"I wonder if that's why he wanted us here with no way out unless he lets us," Jimmy said, slowly. "Have you or Clark tried to call out?"
"Clark tried with his cellular phone," Lois reminded him. "He couldn't."
"Yeah, well I tried it with the regular house phone, this afternoon," Jimmy said. "I got a recorded message saying that the connection wouldn't go through. Rogan told me that they have a lot of trouble with the phones. We're supposed to be having sunspots right now, or something. Am I wrong, or is something really screwy here?"
"You're not wrong," Lois said, "but we're going to find out what it is." She glanced at her watch. "It's already past four-thirty. I have to talk to Clark as soon as I can. He needs to know about Arianna."
"Yeah," Jimmy said. "Lois, are you *sure* that was Lex who died in the tunnel? This couldn't be the real one, could it?"
Lois shrugged. "I've been sort of wondering about that, myself. But even if he is, what difference would it make? A clone with his memories would act exactly the same way. What I'm more worried about is Arianna."
"Yeah, me too." Jimmy said. "Which one of them is really in charge here, I wonder."
"You've been thinking about that too, huh?"
"Yeah," Jimmy said again. "You know, I'd almost rather it was Luthor than Arianna. She scares me. I mean --" he floundered a second, "they both scare me, but she actually scares me more."
"I know what you're trying to say," Lois agreed. "What I'd like to know is how they got into the positions they're in. How did Lex get to be the head of Caribbean Imports? For that matter, how did they get hold of this island and all the trappings? Where did they get the money? Lex didn't have any after that lawyer of his robbed him blind -- except the money he stashed under my name." She grimaced slightly.
"If I could get online, I could probably dig up some of the answers," Jimmy said. "As it is, we're stuck."
Lois shook her head. "No, we're just going to have to find our answers the old fashioned way. I want a look into Arianna's office. Maybe I can get in tonight, if I can figure out where it is."
"I can show you," Jimmy said. "I saw Rogan go in there this morning. It's right off the sitting room."
Lois gave him a grin. "You know, Jim, you're a lot more useful on this trip than I expected -- and don't be insulted. I know you're smart; I just didn't realize you had such a gift for espionage."
Jimmy looked down at his shoes. "I don't. I just notice things. I only wish I had the talent you and CK do for putting the facts together."
"You will," Lois said. "It just takes experience." She glanced at the clock. "Oh, great, it's nearly five! We'd better start getting ready for dinner. We don't want to be late."
Lois checked herself over one last time, craning her neck to see the back of her gown in the full-length mirror. There, that looked good. The thin, black dress was fairly low cut and hugged her curves without being too daring, and the modest string of pearls added just the right touch. She mustn't forget that although Kellie Davenport was James Riley's mistress, she had excellent taste in clothing. Black high heels just matched the dress, and Lois dabbed a new French perfume that Clark had brought her straight from Paris on her wrists and behind her ear. There; that was just right, she decided: attractive, without being outstanding. Being too plain could draw as much attention as the opposite.
While she waited for Jimmy to finish dressing she stood looking out the window, squinting her eyes against the brilliance of the setting sun. There was something that had been nagging at her all afternoon and she couldn't quite put her finger on it. It was some minor thing that she'd observed during her walk that morning. At the time, she hadn't thought much about it, but some part of her mind must have taken note, for now she found herself trying to recall what it had been. The scenery below was bathed in gold, pink and red. Even the ocean had taken on a pinkish hue, but the shadows were long, and the ground shaded by the tall, fragrant pine trees was shrouded in gloom.
Down by the line of trees, there was movement. She squinted, shading her eyes against the sun, trying to discern what it might be -- an animal, bushes waving in the evening sea breeze or something else. Peering into the darker area beside the trees, half-blinded by the brilliant sunset, she couldn't make it out, and reached into her bag for the opera glasses. She lifted them to her eyes, careful to avoid looking at the red ball swimming on the horizon, and trained them on the ground by the tree line, but if there had actually been anything to see, there was nothing now. She put the glasses back, berating herself for letting her imagination get the best of her. A few seconds later a short stocky man -- the gardener, she thought, judging by his clothing -- emerged from the hedged-in gardens and made his way toward the side of the mansion, disappearing after a minute or two around the corner of the building. His appearance brought to mind the man she had seen earlier, crossing the lawn toward the gardens. He had definitely not been the gardener. He had been wearing a long-sleeved, white shirt and a pair of dark slacks, and his head had been bare. It hadn't occurred to her to wonder at the time, but where had he gone? She had watched him enter the gardens through the gap in the hedge, she had seen him walking along, inside the hedge, and suddenly he had vanished. There was almost certainly a logical explanation for it, but she wanted to find out what it was, especially since the man had seemed so familiar. Since they had so few clues as to what Lex and Arianna were actually up to, anything out of place might be a lead. The gardens looked like one more place she and Clark were going to have to check out.
The sun had sunk noticeably in just the time she had stood there thinking, and the shadows were growing longer. She turned away from the window at the sound of a knock on the connecting door. Time to go downstairs and face the enemy once more.
They were early, Lois realized, as soon as they reached the downstairs hall. No one had yet arrived in the sitting room, and the only person besides themselves in sight was Rogan, hurrying back toward the kitchen. She glanced at Jimmy.
"Maybe we'd better go back upstairs."
"Yeah." Jimmy checked the sitting room again. "I think Mrs. de Los Rios is in her office."
"Great. I don't want to be anywhere near her unless I'm in a crowd. I'd better --" She broke off as the door of the office began to open. Arianna Carlin turned in the doorway, speaking over her shoulder to someone behind her. Trapped, Lois did the only thing she could think of. She backed into the hall and covered the ten feet to the front entrance nearly as fast as her husband could have accomplished it. There was no time to go up the stairs and remain unobserved. She opened the front door and stepped out onto the broad stone steps.
Behind her, as she closed the door gently, she could hear Jimmy, still with his -- to her -- surprising presence of mind, greeting Arianna courteously, quite as if his dinner partner hadn't just made a precipitous retreat. Thanking her lucky stars for Jimmy, Lois tiptoed down the steps, feeling nothing in the world like Cinderella.
It looked as if her best bet was to go around to a side entrance and knock, she decided, a minute or two later. She wouldn't even bother to explain to the servant who answered the door. She would simply return to her room for a few moments, wait until more of her fellow guests appeared, and follow them down to the sitting room. That seemed simple enough. Accordingly, she started around the building, lifting her black gown carefully so as not to trip on the trailing hem of the garment.
From somewhere, she heard the loud backfiring of an outboard engine, and managed not to jump at the sound. There was, of course, no reason that she shouldn't be out here, but if she was seen it would draw unwelcome attention, so she moved as quickly and quietly as she could toward the corner of the building. Fortunately, by now the sun had set and only the after-colors still lit the sky. Above her, a gibbous moon was just visible over the roof and here and there some of the brightest stars were beginning to appear.
She was at the corner of the mansion when the sound of running footsteps behind her made her stiffen. Instinctively, she turned toward the sound.
A tall, dark-haired man was sprinting down the sidewalk toward her. Without warning, he turned sharply and angled across the lawn, toward the stand of pines. As she watched, stunned, he plunged into the trees and vanished. Lois stared after him, her mouth slightly open.
"Clark?" she whispered, incredulously. What had her husband been in such a rush for? Something must have happened.
Without another thought, she turned and ran after him.
Clark took the lemon meringue pie from the oven and set it carefully on its rack to cool. Everything was prepared for dinner and his job was technically finished for the evening. Rene checked the dessert and nodded his approbation. "Very well done," he said. "You are a true relief after Donald."
"Donald?" Clark asked.
"Yeah," remarked the assistant who was quickly and efficiently loading the dishwasher. "Don Baler. The guy said he was a cook, but he couldn't boil water without burning it. He lasted a week. Mrs. D got rid of him the first time she had to taste his cooking. Turns out he used to flip burgers at some greasy spoon."
"Ah," Clark said. "I understand. There is much difference between someone who 'flips burgers' and a true artist."
"You said a mouthful," the assistant said. "The first time I tried to eat one of his steaks I nearly broke a tooth."
Clark tidied his cooking area quickly. Being confined to the kitchen unfortunately tended to hamper his ability to do as much snooping as he would like. He was sure Lois was more than capable of handling the majority of it, but he wanted to be able to help her, and to do a little of his own special brand of investigating, himself. The sooner he finished and Rene dismissed him, the better.
He was just wiping the last crumb from the spotless counter when he heard her voice whispering his name.
It didn't sound as if she were in trouble but for some reason she wanted him. He'd better get out of here as quickly as he could and find out what was up.
He rinsed out his rag and hung it neatly on its appointed rack. Lois's voice whispered his name again as he turned toward Rene to ask his permission to depart, but he was destined to be frustrated once more. Her third whisper of his name coincided with the opening of the kitchen door and Arianna Carlin stepped within. She surveyed the kitchen and its occupants with a critical eye.
"Madame," Rene said, hurrying forward to greet her. "Can we be of assistance?
"Thank you, Rene," Arianna said. She smiled fractionally. "I only wanted to meet this new chef, Raoul, whom you recommend so highly. Where is he?"
Rene beckoned to Clark. "This is Raoul Desrosiers, Madame."
Clark reminded himself that he was meeting Madame for the first time and came forward quickly. The woman extended her hand, and instead of shaking it, Clark took it and lifted it to his lips. His skin crawled as he brushed his lips over her knuckles, but he controlled the reaction and smiled into her eyes. "Madame."
She showed no reaction as he released her hand and smiled pleasantly at her. "Mr. Desrosiers. I must agree with Rene that your cooking is far superior to that of our last assistant chef. We'll discuss your employment tomorrow. I'm sure Rene will be glad to have competent help." She turned to cast her eyes over the kitchen. "We'll be sitting down to dinner in a few moments, Rene. Miss Davenport apparently had a slight problem with her dress and will be joining us later. We won't be delaying dinner."
"Very good, Madame," Rene said.
Arianna smiled again -- her smile never reached her eyes, Clark noticed -- and turned back to Clark, studying him for a split second longer than really necessary. "Is it possible we've met before, Mr. Desrosiers?"
"I do not believe so, Madame," Clark said, easily. "I should certainly have remembered such a lady as yourself."
Again, that slight, cold smile. "Very likely." She turned back toward the door, and Rene hastened to open it for her.
Clark allowed himself to relax slightly as the panel closed behind her. Rene had already returned to his supervision of the dinner, but took a moment to speak to Clark. "If you are finished, you may go, Raoul."
Clark began to remove his apron. "Will you need me?"
Rene shook his head. "No. Your part is done for the evening. An excellent first full day at work, may I add." He smiled warmly at his new colleague. "Go and relax. You must be tired."
He had barely left by the servants' entrance when he heard Lois's whisper again, and this time it was not only more urgent, but also held a note of alarm. "Clark! I need you!"
He strode to his room in a businesslike way, closed the door behind him and an instant later was launching himself through the bathroom window faster than the human eye could follow. Fifty feet in the air he paused, orienting himself by her heartbeat.
She wasn't in the house, he discovered at once. She was to the west of him. He soared in that direction, and within seconds had located her. She was on the beach, kneeling in the sand beside the body of a man. He landed beside her a bare instant later.
"You took long enough!" was her greeting, delivered in low tones, but none the less fierce for its lack of volume.
"Sorry. I couldn't get away. What's happened?"
"I don't know. I found this guy here. I think he's dead."
Clark examined the man with his x-ray vision. "Almost, but not quite. If I don't get him to an emergency room fast, though, he will be. Wait here." With that, he scooped up the severely injured man and headed for the mainland.
Lois got slowly to her feet and mechanically brushed sand from the black gown. This thing was going to need to be dry-cleaned before she could wear it again, she thought absently. It was an open question whether the shoes would even be salvageable.
She looked uneasily around. Whoever had shot the unknown man, or stabbed him or whatever, might not be far away. How long had he lain here in the sand? There was no way for her to know, but she hoped Clark would hurry.
And how about that guy she'd mistaken for Clark? True, she hadn't gotten a good look at him, but she'd thought it was her husband. He'd ducked into the trees and disappeared. Where had he been headed in such a hurry? It had certainly looked like some kind of emergency. Was it possible the man she had found was the cause?
The moonlight was bright enough tonight, now that she was out of the trees, and the white sand gleamed under its light. Lois stooped to look at the spot where he had lain. There were a few ominous, dark patches, and the sand had been churned up there, and now that she was thinking straight again, she could see the tracks where he had dragged himself. Slowly, she backtracked the marks in the dry sand. He had crawled up from the water line, she thought. Come to think of it, his clothing had been wet. She had hardly noticed it at the time. He had somehow made it out of the ocean where he must have been dumped after someone had tried to kill him. So perhaps the would-be murderer wasn't around here after all. But where had he come from?
A shadow drifted down silently from the sky, and her husband's voice said, "Find anything?"
"He crawled out of the ocean," Lois said.
"I figured that. He was sopping wet," Clark said. "Someone might have thrown him overboard from a boat, or something."
"Is he alive?" Lois asked.
Clark shrugged, uncomfortably. "He was when I left him -- just barely. He didn't have any identification that I could see."
"I've never seen him before, either," Lois said, "so he wasn't a guest here on the island."
"At least not that we know of," Clark amended. He was turning his head right and left, and Lois figured he was scanning the surrounding vicinity. "There's no one around. You know, it's possible he *jumped* overboard from a boat."
"Sure. If you're going to dump a body, you do it in deep water. He might have jumped, if he was conscious -- on the chance he could make it to the island."
"Clark, he had to know he was badly hurt!"
"Well, sure." Clark was still checking over the area closely. "But if I were in his position, I'd take any chance that was offered to survive. Wouldn't you?"
"I guess so," Lois said, a little doubtfully. "But what was he doing here?"
"That," Clark said, "is the million-dollar question. Somebody wanted him dead, that's certain." He stopped, then strode forward. Something lay on the sand, inches from the water line. Clark picked it up and extended his hand for her to examine what he held.
"A pack of cigarettes?" Lois said.
"It's not. Look." Delicately, Clark peeled back the cover, to reveal a tiny camera. "It's a miniature digital camera. It looks as if somebody was taking pictures where he wasn't wanted."
"But it's soaked," Lois said. "Do you suppose the pictures would still be good?"
"Maybe. Dr. Klein should be able to recover the data, or most of it." Clark glanced around once more. "Look, why don't I take you back to your room so you can get changed out of these clothes. I'll take this to Dr. Klein, and be back as soon as I can. Arianna told Rene that you had a problem with your dress. What happened?"
"I guess that was Jimmy's idea." She let him scoop her up in his arms. "Did you know he has a real talent for this kind of thing?"
As a result of the delay, Lois arrived several minutes after the other guests had gone in to dinner. She walked in quietly and took her seat beside Jimmy without fuss. Lex, or whoever he was, glanced at her and said, smiling, "I see Miss Davenport has arrived." Arianna nodded to her and spoke in a low voice to Rogan, who replied softly and left the room.
"Just in time," Jimmy murmured to her.
She nodded without speaking, wondering how she was going to get through the evening without coming face to face with her host. Fortunately, about twenty minutes into dinner, one of the waiters approached and informed Mr. de Los Rios that he had a phone call on his private line. He frowned slightly, excused himself and left the room.
He didn't return. Lois's mind went to the unidentified man on the beach. Was it possible that the people who had lost him were just now reporting to their boss? If so, she wouldn't want to be the underling responsible for allowing their victim to escape. Of course, it was barely possible that the man on the beach had nothing to do with de Los Rios.
Yeah, right, she told herself. There was something going on here on the island, and it was becoming apparent that she, Clark and Jimmy weren't the only outside parties interested in it.
A few moments after she entered her room, Clark was knocking softly on the window, and she let him in. He wasn't wearing his Superman outfit. Instead, he wore dark, close-fitting clothing as he had last night.
"How did it go?" he asked.
"All right. Nobody paid me much attention," she said. "So, what did Dr. Klein have to say?"
"I handed the camera over to him, and he said he'd get right on it. He thinks he ought to be able to recover most if not all of the data. Then I stopped by in Kansas to say hi to Mom and Dad and play with the kids for a few minutes. CJ was 'helping' Dad milk the cow." He chuckled. "It's only when I see them with CJ and Marta that I really understand how patient they must have been with me when I was little. I used to 'help' Mom in the kitchen, and 'help' Dad with the chores when I was too little to do anything but get in the way, but they never let on for a second that they could have done the job quicker and more easily without me. Mom and Dad are crazy about kids."
"I could see that the first time Martha held CJ," Lois said. "It's sad that they couldn't have any other children, but maybe that was because they were meant to raise you to be the person you are. You were so lucky having them for your parents."
"I know." He slipped his arms around her. "But then, I was incredibly lucky to get the wife I did, too."
Lois emerged from the subsequent kiss with her ears ringing slightly. "Flattery will get you everywhere, mister." She turned her head at the knock on the connecting door. "I don't think Jimmy will ever lose his sense of timing, though."
Clark opened the door for their junior companion. Jimmy's eyes widened slightly. "How did you get here, CK? I was in the hall talking to Harry Blumenthal until a couple of minutes ago."
"He was waiting for me," Lois said.
"Smooth," Jimmy said. He grinned. "Are you going with us, tonight?"
"Going with you?" Clark asked.
Lois nodded. "Arianna's office is right off the sitting room. I want a look in there."
"You bet I'm going," Clark said. "I guess you haven't had a chance to fill Jim in about what happened this evening, huh?"
"Not yet," Lois said.
"What happened?" Jimmy asked.
"Lois found a man lying on the beach," Clark said. "He'd been shot in the back."
Jimmy's eyes widened. "What did you do?"
"I signaled Superman," Lois said. "He promised to keep an ear out for us, in case of a real emergency, remember. He took the guy to the mainland."
"Who was he?" Jimmy asked.
"We don't know. But Superman found a digital camera near him, so Dr. Klein is trying to recover any data on it right now," Clark said. "Superman will let us know what he finds. If we're lucky, it'll have something on it we can use."
Jimmy shook his head. "I don't think anybody could convince me right now that these people aren't up to their necks in something pretty ugly," he said.
"I think we're all agreed on that," Lois said. "I have an idea about tonight. We can't go until nearly everyone is asleep, anyway, so we have a little time to get our plans straight. They'll probably have a night watchman or a security guard or something, so we'll have to avoid him -- or them -- and if either of you have any suggestions, say something. This is how I think we should work it...."
"Anything?" Lois asked.
Clark shook his head. "There's an upstairs security guard, but he's walking through de Los Rios's den, right now. If we move fast, we'll be long past by the time he gets here."
"Talking to the night cook. The guy's fixing him a sandwich."
Lois gave him an unbelieving look. "You're kidding! He keeps a cook on at night?"
Clark nodded, scanning the hall visually. "Apparently so. He's there in case his boss wants a middle-of-the-night snack."
"It's got to be Lex -- or his clone," Lois muttered. "Nobody else would think of something like that -- except maybe a hotel. He did the same thing when -- when we were engaged." She gave a faint shudder. "I stayed at the penthouse the last couple of nights before the wedding. When I think what a fool I was --"
"Well, if I hadn't been so bull-headed, I would have told you, as Superman," Clark said. "It wouldn't have gotten that far. I was an idiot, but at least it worked out all right in the end."
"I still have nightmares about it," Lois said. "It just seems like I can't ever be free of him. Every time we think he's gone for good, he comes back in some other incarnation."
"Well, we're going to bring him and his company down," Clark said. He squeezed her hand lightly. "Let's go."
He lifted her lightly in his arms and they drifted noiselessly into the hall, half an inch off the floor. Lois closed the door behind them.
At the bottom of the stairs, he set her down. They crept softly toward the sitting room, both of them alert for any slightest sound. Once Clark paused. "There's a guard covering the hall ahead," he breathed in her ear.
"Up there, just around the corner. He'll see us when we go in unless -- Wait a minute." He grinned, suddenly. "He's half asleep. When he closes his eyes for a few seconds, we'll go. Hold your breath." He gripped her around the waist, watching the nodding, uniformed man. The guard was leaning against the wall, blinking sleepily. As Clark watched, the other man's mouth opened in a jaw-cracking yawn, and he swept them both across the open space and into the sitting room.
They stood in the shadows, waiting, Clark scanning the immediate vicinity with his special eyesight and hearing.
"Where's Jimmy?" Lois asked, in a whisper.
"He's coming. He's got a tray of roast beef sandwiches and some milk."
As he spoke, they both heard Jimmy's voice speaking to the hall guard and a second later he appeared in the doorway, carrying a generously laden tray before him. Calmly, he picked a spot almost directly in front of the door, set the tray on a coffee table and sat down in plain view of the guard and of anyone else who might pass by in the hall. Casually, he produced a novel, switched on the lamp behind him, picked up a sandwich and settled in to read. Not once did he so much as glance at Lois and Clark where they stood against the opposite wall.
After a few seconds they tiptoed to the door of Arianna's office. It was locked, as might be expected, and Clark examined it closely for alarms. There was one, but a needle-thin burst of heat vision took care of that hazard. A few seconds later he had cracked the lock's alphanumeric code, and the door opened quietly for them.
Jimmy hadn't looked up from his book. Lois and Clark slipped inside the office and closed the door behind them.
The office was dark, except for a tiny night-light glowing softly from one of the wall sockets. Clark, of course, needed no light, but Lois brought out a tiny penlight and shielded it with one hand as she cautiously flashed it around.
She didn't know what she expected, but the office was quite ordinary in appearance. There was a wide desk with the newest of computers sitting on it, and in a back corner, a large, utilitarian file cabinet. Curtained windows opened on the side lawn of the mansion with a view of the promontory and a narrow section of the sea, dim under the starlight. To the far right, she could see where the wooded land began, mostly more of the tall, dark pine trees. Clark quietly pulled the heavy curtains and reached out to snap on a lamp.
"Where first?" Lois asked.
"You take the file cabinet and I'll take the computer," Clark said.
"Gotcha." Lois pulled a long hairpin out of her hair and attacked the lock on the cabinet. She hadn't brought her regular lock pick with her, but the innocuous hairpin, which she had specially selected for its length and tensile strength, did the job almost as well. Within a couple of minutes she had undone the lock and was pulling open the top drawer.
"Ah!" Clark's whispered exclamation caught her attention. "Look at this!"
Lois turned. "What is it?"
"A list of companies apparently under their control, probably through dummy companies, or something. I'll be willing to bet that none of them are officially listed as a subsidiary of Caribbean Imports." He indicated several. "Look at these. Some of them seem familiar. Wasn't Global Air one of Luthor's companies?"
"Yeah. It was LexAir before his death." Lois stared at the list with an eerie feeling of déjà vu. "Industry, communications, utilities -- Clark, it's LexCorp all over again. I was right. He's rebuilding his empire." She turned back to the file cabinet. "See if you can find anything on the company officers. We can try to match them up against LexCorp employees."
"I'll do my best."
Lois barely heard him. She was ruffling through the files, looking for anything to connect LexCorp with Caribbean Imports. When she found the file labeled "Project Doppelganger", she froze. "Clark!"
"Look at this! Remember Project Doppelganger?"
Clark took the sheaf of paper and before her eyes, shifted into high speed. Half a second later he looked up, stricken. "Oh, boy." He glanced at the door of the office and his expression became distant for an instant, then he looked back at her. "Make photos of this, quick. I have the feeling our time is getting short." He turned back to the computer. "I'm going to copy this whole folder. We can sort it out later." He slipped a disk into the zip drive and ordered the computer to copy the information.
Lois was busy, snapping pictures with her tiny camera. The file was thick, but she worked as fast as she could. As she put the last sheet back into the file and slipped it into place in the cabinet, she heard Jimmy speaking. "Good morning, Alex. I hope you don't mind my taking advantage of your night chef."
"Not at all. Couldn't you sleep?" Lois caught her breath at the familiar sound of their host's voice.
Jimmy answered, sounding calm. "No. I came down for a snack. I've found reading in a quiet room helps me relax."
Lex's voice had a smile in it that raised the short hairs on Lois's neck. "Isn't your room quiet enough for you?"
"Kellie snores," Jimmy explained, blandly.
Softly, Lois closed the drawer of the cabinet and switched off the lamp, noting that Clark had removed the disk from its slot and was quickly shutting down the computer. In the sitting room, Lex said, "I see. Fortunately, my wife doesn't have the same problem. Still, the lady is very attractive, otherwise. I must commend you on your taste."
"Thanks," Jimmy said. "Kellie's an interesting person."
"How did you meet her?" Lex asked.
Lois stiffened, expecting Jimmy to fumble, but he surprised her. He laughed.
"I think you'd better ask Kellie that. We seem to remember it a little differently."
Lex's amusement sounded genuine this time. "So speaks a man who knows women." There was a scraping sound. "Well," Lex's voice said, "I'll leave you to your book. Sorry to interrupt your reading."
"I'll be heading up to bed shortly," Jimmy said. "I've been thinking about what you said this afternoon. I'll try to have a decision for you in a day or two."
"I'll be looking forward to it," Lex said, and Lois shuddered at the memory of him speaking that exact phrase to her in another time and place. How could she have been so completely blind back then? She had never quite forgotten the hurt in Clark's eyes when she had rejected his love, and the anger she didn't understand on Superman's face when she had declared her love for him. And she had agreed to marry a man she didn't love, and didn't even really know. Later, when she learned the truth, she had realized the enormity of what she had done, but Clark never brought it up again. It wasn't in him to rub it in, and she knew he blamed himself far more for what had almost happened, but Lois had never allowed herself to forget it. It had nearly been the costliest mistake of her life.
"You're up a little late, yourself," Jimmy observed, casually. "I hope I didn't disturb you."
"Not at all. I haven't been to bed, yet," Lex's voice said. "I've been dealing with a small business problem since dinner. Nothing vital, but I'm somewhat obsessive about my company. If there's trouble, I want to take care of it while it's still minor."
"That sounds like the motto of a good executive," Jimmy said.
"I like to think so. Excuse me."
"Sure." Jimmy fell silent and a second later, Lois could hear the faint beeping sound as Lex punched in the combination to the office door. Quickly, she dropped to her hands and knees and scooted tightly beneath the desk. Clark shoved the desk chair into place in front of her, and a second later she heard the door open. The overhead light blazed on.
Lex's footsteps crossed the room toward her. She could see his expensive shoes, and the exquisitely tailored slacks he wore as he stopped in front of the file cabinet and unlocked it. He pulled open the top drawer and she could hear him ruffling through the files. Once he exclaimed softly, a note of pain in his voice.
"Are you all right?" Jimmy's voice said from the doorway. "Can I help?"
"No, thanks. It's only a paper cut," Lex said. He removed something from the drawer. "There, I've found what I need." Lois heard the drawer close and saw his feet turn toward her and pass directly in front of the desk. After a few seconds, the light went off and the door clicked shut. She waited for a slow count of fifty before she pushed the chair away from the desk and crawled out. Clark was just touching down on the carpet. He held a finger to his lips, his head clocked in a listening pose for a long minute while Lois waited, tensely. At last, he relaxed.
"They're on their way up the stairs. Let's get out of here."
Lois had left the window of her room open. They made it there before Jimmy arrived and she pulled off her dark clothing, threw it in the closet, pulled on her negligee and scrambled into bed. Clark stepped behind the door. Within two minutes, she heard the door to Jimmy's room open and called out, "Is that you, honey?"
"Yeah," Jimmy's voice said. Another male voice -- probably Lex's -- spoke unintelligibly in the background and she heard Jimmy's door close. In an instant, she was out of her bed and reaching for her robe. After a moment, Jimmy appeared through the connecting door.
"When did you get back here?" he asked.
"About two minutes ago," Lois said. "Clark and I came up by the back stairs. You did a great job. I don't think he suspected a thing."
"Where were you hiding?" Jimmy asked. "I was sure he was going to catch you. I was ready to slug him if I had to, but --"
Lois laughed a little breathlessly. "I hid under the desk and all I could see was his feet, but I heard everything. We found some interesting information, though, so the risk was worth it. Now all we have to do is get Superman to take it to the Planet for us."
"Anything I should know?" Jimmy asked.
Lois nodded soberly. "They have a file on 'Project Doppelganger'."
"Project -- You mean the *clone* project?"
"That's the one," Clark said. "I have a bad feeling about this."
Lois glanced at his face. There was a grim set to his lips, and he looked much more like Superman than Clark Kent, even allowing for the mustache and goatee. Something in that file had upset him; that was for sure. She opened her closet door, retrieved the camera and gave it to him. "You'd better get this to Superman as soon as you can, Clark. We need to know what's in the file."
He nodded and slipped it into his pocket. "I'll get it to him." He withdrew the zip disk from a back pocket. "I got this off Arianna's computer, Jim. We'll need to check it out."
"Right," Jimmy said. "I'll take care of it."
Lois yawned suddenly. A glance at her traveling alarm told her that it was nearly four in the morning. "I'm tired. Scram, Jimmy; I'm going to bed."
Jimmy yawned, as well. "Man, I'm tired, too. G'night, guys." He departed via the connecting door.
Clark closed it behind him and turned to her. "I'd better drop the film off at the Planet. I'll be back in a few minutes, honey." He gave her a peck on the cheek and vanished.
Slowly, Lois crawled into bed. It had been an exciting night and she was filled with a sense of accomplishment, but it was marred by a feeling of dread that wouldn't go away. Whatever was going on, here on the island, it was more than even they had guessed, and she shivered slightly under the warmth of the thick comforter that covered the bed. She hoped Clark would hurry. For some reason she needed the feeling of reassurance his presence gave her, tonight. A few years ago it would have appalled her to think that Lois Lane needed any man for any reason, but she'd learned a lot since then. Clark was as necessary to her comfort and happiness as food to eat and oxygen to breathe, and she gave a faint sigh of relief as he stepped through the window again, five minutes later.
"Superman gave it to Pete," Clark said. He began to pull off his outer clothing. "He told me he'd have it ready by morning." He slid into the bed with her a moment later and Lois snuggled into his arms. "This is a lot bigger than anyone could have imagined."
"What did you see in the file?" Lois asked.
"A lot. For one thing, the Luthor who kidnapped you and found out about me was a clone," Clark said. "A Type 'B' clone. He wouldn't have lived any longer than the Lois-clone, from the data I saw, but he thought he was the real one."
"And this Lex?" Lois asked, after a short silence. "Is he a clone, too?"
"There were only two Luthor-clones made," Clark said, quietly, "the one who kidnapped you, and the one in prison on Stryker's Island." He paused and drew a deep breath. "This one -- Alejandro de Los Rios -- has to be the original -- the real Lex Luthor."
Clark lay awake, staring at the dark ceiling. Beside him, Lois had finally drifted off into an uneasy slumber but he wasn't able to sleep. The discovery they had made tonight wouldn't let him, and his thoughts unknowingly followed a similar track to those of his wife, the day before. His old nightmare had come true after a fashion; Lex Luthor wasn't dead. In an odd way, he had risen from the grave yet again. In actuality, he hadn't died -- at least, not a second time. The Luthor who had kidnapped Lois had been a Type "B" clone, with a lifespan of two weeks. He wouldn't have outlived the Lois clone by much, even if they hadn't been caught in the collapsing tunnel. It was ironic in a way.
But what about the switch he had planned for Lois and himself into the two clone bodies taken from STAR Labs? There had been nothing in the file they had found about them. The omission was a glaring one. The Luthor clone had meant, with the aid of Asabi, to shift his mind and for Lois to shift hers into new bodies. Together they would have fled to Europe, to his fortress, or so he had claimed. Clark was beginning to wonder about that. Why would Lex Luthor have allowed the woman he wanted to be taken away by another version of himself?
If it had been he who ordered it.
But what if he hadn't? What if it had been Arianna Carlin?
Wheels within wheels, he thought. The two clone bodies were still in stasis at STAR Labs. Maybe he'd better have Dr. Klein check them out. Arianna hated Lois -- and Superman. What if she had chosen that way to hurt them both and to secure Luthor for herself? Arianna wanted Lex Luthor and she was capable of anything. In Clark's opinion, the woman was as ruthless as her former husband, and wouldn't hesitate to use any means possible to tie him to her. If she was calling the shots, the situation was more dangerous and volatile than they had first expected. He was beginning to realize that there might be more levels of deception here than anyone, except perhaps Arianna Carlin, knew.
While he'd been in Metropolis earlier, he'd made a quick stop by the office of Inspector Henderson for information. Arianna, it turned out, had been released on a technicality, courtesy of the law firm employed by LexCorp after less than a year in prison, so she could easily have engineered the release of Luthor. For now, however, they had no evidence of a crime with which to charge her. As for Alejandro de Los Rios, they possessed no real proof he was in truth Lex Luthor. Only the "Doppelganger" file indicated it might be so, but no police department was going to take the risk of arresting a wealthy foreign national on such flimsy evidence. And, in any case, arresting the two of them, even if it were practical, most probably wouldn't stop whatever was going on here or bring down Caribbean Imports. They needed proof, and the only way to get that was to keep quiet and keep looking.
He glanced at Lois's alarm clock. It was only a few minutes to five. Time for him to get up and ready for work. He had the breakfast shift again this morning.
With a sigh, Clark eased himself out of the warm bed, dressed quickly and departed by way of the window.
When Lois woke, the sun was high in the sky. A glance at her clock confirmed that it was nearly noon, and she scrambled hastily out of bed. For an investigative reporter, she wasn't running up a very good record on this assignment, she thought as she ran water for a shower. Sleeping late wasn't exactly conducive to uncovering guilty secrets.
Then she recalled why she had been up so late the night before, and the feeling of imminent disaster returned.
She showered and dressed quickly, applied her makeup carefully and a short time later was descending the main staircase. Rogan was nowhere to be seen, but one of the other servants was passing through the hall as she appeared. He paused as she arrived at the bottom of the stairs. "Is there anything I can do for you, Miss?"
"Um -- yes," Lois said. "I overslept and missed breakfast. Is there anything I can get to eat?"
"Of course. If you'll come into the breakfast room, I'll have Mr. Desrosiers prepare you something at once." The man indicated the way and Lois followed him, somewhat nervously.
The breakfast room was deserted, however, and within a moment of her arrival, Clark, in full chef's garb, arrived. He gave her a little bow. "What can I bring you, Mademoiselle?" he inquired with his best French accent.
"How about some coffee," Lois suggested. "What else do you have?"
Clark smiled. "Anything you wish, Mademoiselle."
"Then just bring me whatever you gave the others this morning," she said. "Not too fattening, please."
"Ah," Clark said. "I understand. Rely on me. It will be only a few moments."
"Don't overplay your role," Lois murmured under her breath, quite certain he would hear her.
Clark's eyelid flickered in the most fleeting of winks, then he bowed himself out of the room.
True to his word, in less than a minute another man, this one in the outfit of one of the house servants, arrived with a silver tray bearing a coffee pot, a china coffee cup and saucer, cream, non-fat creamer, sugar substitute, sugar, and a small container of carob powder as well as various utensils. Clark was covering all his bases, she thought as the man poured her coffee, even Kellie's supposed allergy to chocolate. When he had left, she added the carob and nonfat creamer to suit her taste and sat back to enjoy her morning coffee -- even if it was now several minutes after twelve -- and to think about what to do next.
The window beside her opened onto a side lawn, and beyond she could see the swimming pool. Three persons were sunning themselves on deck chairs, and this close, she could see that the pool enclosure was protected from the brisk sea breeze by a transparent barrier -- plastic, or maybe glass, she decided. Someone was swimming, but all she could see was the vigorous splashing of water as the swimmer made his way across the pool.
It was less than five minutes before her breakfast arrived; a bowl of cooked cereal, with honey, toast, butter, jam, chopped fresh fruit, and a cup of hot tea. It was actually a fairly simple meal, but like all of Clark's cooking, it was delicious. If he hadn't wanted to be a reporter, she thought as she dug into her breakfast, Clark could have become a world-class chef without much trouble.
The swimmer hoisted himself out of the pool and Lois found herself gazing at their host. Lex picked up a beach towel and dried his face, and Lois tried not to stare. After Superman had rescued her from the collapsed tunnel, she'd blocked out everything associated with Lex; even Clark. She didn't like to think of that period in her life. She'd felt lost and empty, and it had made her choice prey for Max Deter. Then, after she'd regained her memory she'd been plagued with nightmares for weeks, where Lex wasn't really dead and was coming back for her. After a time, she'd mostly worked through the fear, and now the nightmare only came occasionally, but she'd never totally banished it. And now, it was back in real life. He wasn't a clone or a hologram or an illusion. He was alive, and she was going to have to deal with the fact.
Watching him, her jaw hardened. Lois Lane had never backed down from a challenge in her life and she wasn't going to start now. It was about time she took care of this particular bogeyman once and for all, and vanquished it for good.
Jimmy was emerging from the billiard room with Harry Blumenthal when she came back into the hall. Honestly, Lois thought, Lex could hardly have gotten cornier if he'd tried. Billiard room? It sounded like that board game she'd beaten Clark, Martha and Jonathan at every night the last time they'd visited Smallville. This place even had a lounge and a conservatory. Rogan had pointed it out to her yesterday when she'd gotten turned around while trying to find the restroom. If she asked, there was probably a ballroom and a study, too, she reflected, whimsically. Well, she'd told Jimmy the place reminded her of those old gothic romances, so it kind of figured. If only all they had was a simple murder to worry about!
"Hi, Kellie," Jimmy said.
"Hi, honey," Lois said. She took his arm and snuggled up to his side. "Do you want to come for a walk with me?"
"Sure," Jimmy said instantly. He turned to Harry. "Thanks for the game. I guess I'll see you at dinner."
"Yeah. See you later," Harry said. "You play a mean game of pool."
"Lots of practice," Jimmy said. "Where do you want to go, Kel?"
"Oh, just around on the walks outside. It's a beautiful day," she said. "We could go to the beach and pick up shells." She grinned at him. "I need to get my exercise. I don't want to get fat!"
"Okay," Jimmy agreed. "Let's go."
As they went out the front door, Lois murmured to him, "Keep an eye out for people watching us. I want to know where they are."
Jimmy nodded, smiling at her as if she'd made an amusing remark. "All right. For starters, there's a groundskeeper on our right. He's watching us."
"Lex seems to have a whole network of people who keep track of his guests," Lois said. "Let's head for the beach and take a walk in the sand like I said. One of the things I want to do is check out that boathouse, and to do that without being caught, I need to know where his lookouts are."
"Smart," Jimmy said. "Did CK get the film to Superman?"
"Yeah, he did. Pete said it would be ready this morning. I'm anxious to see what's on it. Have you had a chance to check out the disk?"
He shook his head. "Not yet. My laptop doesn't seem to be working. I've got the disk safe, though. Maybe you could give it to Superman when he brings the film back."
"Good idea," Lois said. "When did you find out your computer doesn't work?"
"Last night, after I left you and CK. There doesn't seem to be anything wrong -- it just doesn't work."
"Like the cell phones," Lois murmured. "You know, Jim, I distrust coincidences like that."
"You and me, both." Cautiously, he put an arm around her waist. "There's a guy on the hill over there to our right, watching us with a pair of binoculars."
Lois laughed out loud, as if Jimmy had said something funny, and put an arm around him, resting her hand on his left buttock. Jimmy gave a slight start but plastered a grin on his face. The kid was definitely a natural, Lois thought. Maybe it ran in the family.
Within a few minutes, they reached the short flight of stairs leading down to the beach, and Lois sat down on the top step to remove her shoes. Jimmy emulated her and a moment later they had descended to the white stretch of sand. Lois led the way down the beach to a spot just above the water's edge and stood looking around.
Jimmy picked up a stone and threw it into the water. "What are you looking for?" he inquired.
"Is it that obvious?" she asked.
"No, but I know you're not that fascinated with the scenery."
"Oh. I'm not sure, really. I've been trying to remember since yesterday. I saw something on my walk, and sort of had an idea about it, but I can't remember what it was."
"And you're hoping to see it again, huh?"
"Well, why don't we cover all the territory you did yesterday, and stroll down to the boat house. Maybe you'll spot it."
"Okay. We have to put on a show for our audience, though."
A loud squawking above her reminded her of the birds she had seen the day before. She looked up. There were more of the creatures circling around overhead, entering and leaving the holes in the cliff. Suddenly something clicked. "Jimmy, could there be caves or something in this cliff? Those birds are sure going somewhere."
"Huh? Oh, sure. Have you ever seen the Sea Lion Caves in Oregon? There's huge caves in the sea cliffs there, where thousands of sea lions nest. We visited them once when I was a kid. Why?"
"Well, Clark and I think there's something going on around here that takes a lot of power. Clark overheard a phone call -- never mind. Superman did some looking around the night of the storm, but couldn't find anything. It's possible whatever it is could be hidden somewhere inside the cliff caves -- if there are caves."
"Oh." Jimmy regarded the birds, thoughtfully. "Maybe you're right, but no human is going to get in the way those guys are."
"No," Lois agreed. "There has to be an easier way in -- if there's anything to find in there."
"Well, let's just walk around a bit," Jimmy suggested. "Look for the place with the most guards. That should give us some idea where they don't want us. You said you wanted to check out the boathouse."
"Yeah," Lois said. "Let's wade a little, first. We're supposed to be having fun together."
"Okay." Jimmy poked her suddenly in the upper arm. "Tag! You're it!" He turned and ran. Lois started after him instinctively at top speed.
"Why you --!"
Jimmy ran, laughing, and Lois followed him, half stumbling in the sand and splashing water with every step. She caught up with him as a wave rolled in about his ankles and sucked the support out from under him. She grabbed him in time to prevent him falling into the surf.
"Think that'll do?" Jimmy asked between gasps.
"If someone's watching!" she said, trying not to laugh and gasp for breath at the same time.
"There is. The groundskeeper is standing back there in the trees."
"Oh." The desire to laugh departed, but she forced herself to keep grinning. "You're good, you know?"
"I've had some pretty good teachers: you and CK, for starters. My dad, too, when we went on that weeklong camping trip in Maine last year, and Perry, when we go fishing. We talk a lot, about lots of things. I decided I wanted to be as good at what I do as you guys, so I started trying to listen and notice things around me and remember what I hear and see."
"You learned pretty well," Lois said.
"Thanks. What now?"
"Now we go and put our shoes on and go walking over toward the boathouse. It's about a mile via the path. Let's see if anyone stops us."
The boathouse was well built and sturdy Lois thought, and appeared to be fairly new. It was covered with a gleaming coat of white paint that looked to her as if it had only been applied days ago. Of course, she supposed Lex could afford to have it painted every year, but the normal weathering caused by the salt air and the inevitable deterioration of the unpainted supports, immersed in the water, hadn't progressed very far from what she could see. There weren't even any barnacles clinging to the wooden posts and there should have been, which meant that Lex either had people clean them regularly which seemed unlikely, even for him, or they hadn't been there long. Clark had reported a good deal of lead in the boathouse's structure, too. The yacht floated at the end of the dock, sleek and graceful, and here and there men loitered around or worked at various tasks with single-minded intensity. No one seemed to be paying much attention to them but Lois glanced at Jimmy with a feeling of uneasiness. Someone was watching, she thought. She'd had the sensation before, of observation by unseen eyes.
She forced herself to a casual walk, her hand resting lightly on Jimmy's arm. Jimmy was looking around with an appreciative air, and after a moment, he started down the pier, obviously headed for the yacht. He stopped near the end and stood regarding the vessel with admiration.
"Beautiful, isn't she?" he said, not trying to speak too loudly, but making no effort not to be heard. "Maybe I should see about getting a company yacht."
"It's nice," she agreed. "Do you suppose Mr. de Los Rios would mind if we went aboard?"
"I think we better wait for his invitation," Jimmy said. "I just wanted to see her up close."
"Okay," Lois agreed, amiably. She turned, shading her eyes, to survey the surrounding area. The door to the boathouse opened as she did so and a man emerged onto the pier. Lois regarded him with a smile fixed on her face, but shock was coursing through her even so. Careful not to stare, she continued her slow pivot, aware that the man had given her a slightly nervous look before turning away.
Jimmy glanced at her with a slight smile, and said, "Well, are you ready to go back now?"
"Sure," Lois said. She let him lead the way, holding her hand, back up the pier. Out of the corner of her eye, Lois followed the progress of the man she had noticed. He was waddling up the weathered boards toward one of the little carts that seemed to be the preferred method of transportation on the island. He clambered into it, started it up and a moment later was trundling away up the narrow road that led upward toward the house. Lois and Jimmy walked casually back the way they had come.
"We've got to get into that boathouse," Lois said, finally, her voice intentionally low.
"Why? What did you see?" Jimmy asked.
"That guy. Did you notice him?"
"The one that came out of the boathouse? Sure," Jimmy said. "He looks kind of familiar, but I don't know why."
"That's because you've only seen his picture, never him in person," Lois said. "I saw him yesterday, crossing the lawn, but I couldn't place him."
"And you did, this time?"
"I sure did! That's Isaac Mamba."
"Who -- you mean *Doctor* Mamba? The guy that made the clones?"
"That's the one."
"Oh, man!" Jimmy said, softly.
Clark finished preparing lunch for the household. Rene had dropped in for a short few minutes, to check over the lunch menu and then departed again to parts unknown, leaving Clark in charge. He waited while the meal was served, received Mrs. de Los Rios's compliments on a delicious lunch, then left the cleanup to his underlings for a couple of hours' break before it was time to begin dinner.
It was nearly three-thirty in the afternoon, and his hearing told him that neither Lois nor Jimmy was on the premises. A couple of years before he would have been concerned. Lois had become far more circumspect since they had acquired the responsibility of two children, but she still retained the attitude of an investigative reporter. So far, she'd found out at least as much as he had, even without super powers to help her out.
She was also in a much better position to snoop around than he was, at least for a good portion of the time, which was probably what she was doing now. A slight pang of concern crossed his mind. Maybe it wouldn't be a bad idea to go look around for them a little.
He dropped by his small room for a change of clothing and left by way of the servants' entrance, making no attempt to conceal his departure. Looking around, he could see at least three different persons who might be keeping an eye on him. The fact that Luthor seemed to maintain a spy network on the island didn't concern him much, at least for himself. He had no doubt of his ability to evade it if necessary. He wondered, though, why the man hadn't put in some sort of electronic surveillance system but in spite of every effort he had made, he hadn't been able to spot any bugs anywhere. As a matter of fact, as far as Clark knew, Luthor had never used such a system in his penthouse in Metropolis either, although he seemed to have no such qualms about spying on outsiders. It was certainly a puzzling facet of the man's personality but it seemed to hold true here as well.
He thrust his hands in his pockets and ambled casually away from the house, glancing around and presenting all the appearance of a man interested in nothing but a pleasant stroll before returning to work. In reality, he was tuning in his super-hearing, trying to pick out the voices of Lois and Jimmy, as well as anything else of interest that he might stumble across.
The normal sounds of the island were present, accompanied by the conversation of men and a few women here and there. He could hear the cries of the sea birds from the cliff, and, by paying close attention, he could sense very faintly, the mysterious vibration that he had heard on his first night here. "Hear" was too strong a word to describe the sensation, but it was there, at the very edge of his perception. It had to be a power generator of some kind, he thought, well shielded and very well concealed, but barely detectable by his better-than-human senses.
Lois's voice caught his attention at once. She was some distance away in the direction of the boathouse and moving slowly. He searched with his special vision, and found her. She and Jimmy were walking along a path that led to the house.
"We'll try the boathouse tonight," Lois was saying decisively. "We've got to see what's in there. He wouldn't have been there without a reason."
"That's for sure." Jimmy's voice sounded a little subdued. "Did you ever tell CK it was me that taught you how to pick locks?"
"I," Lois said, automatically.
"'I', not 'me'. Sure, I told him. Why?"
"I just wondered if he ever got mad that I taught you."
"No. Why should he?"
"'Cause you do stuff like breaking into places where you could get in trouble."
"Jim, you're not going all macho, 'gotta protect the little woman' on me, are you?"
"Well, no. I just wondered, though. Lots of guys wouldn't like their wives taking that kind of risk."
"Clark isn't like that," Lois said, sounding patient. "Of course, he worries, but he doesn't try to control me. At least he doesn't make that kind of mistake very often." She paused and added, "And when he does, I just remind him why he shouldn't."
Jimmy laughed, and Clark found himself grinning slightly. That was his little tornado, all right, and she was absolutely correct. Nobody told Lois Lane what she could and couldn't do -- not if he wanted to keep his ego intact -- not even Superman. Still, perhaps he should be sure he accompanied the two of them on their expedition tonight. After all, it was his investigation, too.
Looking up ahead of her on the path, Lois caught a glimpse of a tall, dark-haired figure. It looked like Clark, but after her experience last night, she wasn't about to assume anything. The fact that there was someone around here that she had mistaken for Clark, at least from a distance, made her cautious, and the knowledge that Dr. Mamba was here made her doubly careful.
But it was Clark. When they came within a few feet, Clark nodded to them amiably. "Miss Davenport, Mr. Riley."
"Mr. Desrosiers," Lois said. "That was a really good breakfast you made for me."
Clark smiled. "My pleasure, mademoiselle."
Jimmy glanced casually at the groundskeeper who was raking leaves some distance away. "That guy's watching us, CK."
Clark moved aside on the walk to let them pass. Lois said, "Be sure you come upstairs tonight. Mamba's here." She kept walking, tugging Jimmy along beside her. "I think we should go tour the gardens now. There's something I'd like to check out."
"What?" Jimmy asked.
"When I saw Mamba yesterday, he went into the garden enclosure and disappeared. Maybe it doesn't mean anything, but if it does, we might be able to figure out where he went and why." She smiled broadly for the benefit of watchers and pointed to the gardens.
"Okay," Jimmy said, "but I'll bet whatever it is, it's not obvious."
"Probably not," Lois admitted. "I just want to look around and see if there's anything we should come back later to check on. Chances are that it's nothing, anyway."
"Maybe," Jimmy said, doubtfully. "A scientist that grows clones doesn't seem to me like a candidate for flower-lover of the year. If he went in there, then there might be another reason and I don't think it was to pick a bouquet for his girlfriend. Maybe he's growing plants to manufacture illegal drugs or something."
Lois shrugged. "Let's go see what we can see." She snuggled up to him. "Come on, honey," she said, more clearly, "let's go see the flowers."
"I hope CK doesn't punch me out after this," Jimmy muttered.
Clark turned and continued on his way, careful not to look back, but Lois's remark to him made the short hairs on his neck want to rise. Mamba? Isaac Mamba had been the man who had manufactured the clones -- CJ included, and he had given them CJ to protect. Did that mean that the scientist had told Lex Luthor where to find his Superman clone?
He hoped the man had continued to keep silent on the matter. Mamba had feared the results of a super-powered clone raised and controlled by Lex Luthor. Anyone with sense would be afraid of that, even a criminal. It was also barely possible that Mamba wasn't here by his own will, but his presence gave more urgency to their investigation. If Luthor found out that Mamba had been the man who had stolen the Superman clone, nothing on Earth would be able to prevent him from wringing the information from the scientist by any means necessary, and that would trigger events that could only lead to disaster. They had to prevent that, at any cost.
There was a wooden bench under an ornate canopy ahead, apparently situated for persons to sit and enjoy a panoramic view of the ocean. To Clark's better-than-human sight, the boathouse and the dock were also distinctly visible, and he could see the gardens as well. He sat down as if to rest and leaned back, stretching his legs before him, watching as Lois and Jimmy strolled in the general direction of the gardens. The summer flowers had faded, but the autumn-blooming plants were displayed in all their glory inside the enclosure. It was unlikely that anyone would be suspicious of a guest who wished to walk through them.
He was watching and listening to Lois and Jimmy and thinking so hard about the possible implications of Mamba's presence on the island that he almost missed the sight of Rene Didier emerging from the boathouse far below. He did miss completely what Rene was saying to a second man that Clark recognized belatedly as the close-mouthed pilot that had brought him to Crescent Island. The pilot had told him in no uncertain terms that unauthorized employees were to stay away from the master's dock and boathouse. So, what was Luthor's head chef doing there?
The gardens were -- well, spectacular was a word that sprang to mind, Lois had to admit, but they were something of a shock to the system all the same. The fall colors were flamboyant and, without doubt, no expense had been spared on the landscape design. Climbing roses had clambered over trellises and hung in dancing sprays of late blooms from arches and fantastically designed supports. A delicate little gazebo, intended more for display than actual use and half-covered with climbing vines, sat in the center of the enclosure. Here and there, pieces of marble statuary and small white wrought iron benches were scattered about the grounds, and near one corner a spreading tree, its leaves brilliant with autumn hues, cast a puddle of shade over part of the enclosure. A decorative swing hung artlessly from a branch and the ground around the tree was thick with violet plants and lilies-of-the-valley. When they were in bloom the air would be heavy with their scent. A fountain cast a spray of water, as brilliant as diamonds in the afternoon sun, into the air, to fall in a fine shower into a pond below it where bright fishes swam. Graceful, curving paths wove their way between the flowerbeds, roses, climbing vines and small, ornamental trees and bushes, and the flagstones that paved the walkways were wide and artistically irregular in shape.
Jimmy and Lois looked wordlessly at each other. Lois, of course, had seen part of the gardens from the vantage point of her bedroom window, but the high hedge and the tree had blocked a good deal of her view, and the angle hadn't been good. For several seconds she stood still, simply taking in the bewildering array of colors and statuary. The place looked like some kind of cross between an English garden and a Greek fantasy, and she felt slightly overwhelmed.
"Wow," Jimmy said, finally. He paused, seeming to feel that something more was needed and added, "Gee."
Lois chuckled. "You really have to bring all that eloquence under control," she said.
"Huh? Oh, yeah." He grinned. "Man, this place looks like -- I don't know what it looks like. It's pretty, but it's kind of -- I don't know; kind of -- well -- a little too much."
Lois nodded, thoughtfully. "This doesn't strike me as Lex's style," she said. "Lex enjoys luxury, but it isn't -- well, overdone."
"Rogan said the gardens were Mrs. de Los Rios's," Jimmy said. "Maybe this is her idea."
"You're kidding me," Lois said. "Arianna? She's the poster child for the elegant understatement. I don't think this is something she'd design. It's -- I don't know. Out of place."
"That's for sure," Jimmy agreed, "unless there's another reason for it." He broke off and they looked at each other again.
"Jim, you're a genius," Lois said.
"Sure. They're hiding something here." Lois started down the flagstone-paved walk. "Let's look around."
When Clark returned to the kitchen to begin dinner preparations, he was still pondering Rene's presence in the boathouse with the pilot. Was Rene in on whatever was going on here? He didn't want to think so; he'd liked the French chef on sight, but it wouldn't be the first time he'd been fooled. The pilot had been a surly, almost unfriendly sort, but apparently, in spite of his warning to Clark to avoid the boathouse, he had no such objections concerning Rene.
The kitchen was empty when Clark arrived, and he used the time to get a head start on dinner. By the time the kitchen workers began filtering in, twenty minutes later, he had his appetizers prepared and sitting on trays, chilling, the prime rib already roasting, and was beginning to assemble the ingredients for the cake intended for one of the dessert dishes this evening. Rene appeared some time after that and nodded approval of his organization. The chef appeared to be somewhat preoccupied, however, and not in a mood for conversation. Clark took the hint and refrained from unnecessary speech, but his mind was busy. What had changed the chef's usually sunny disposition?
He wasn't destined to find that out tonight. Rene remained mostly silent as the evening progressed. There was a grim set to his mouth, and if Clark was any judge, the head chef's mind wasn't more than superficially on his job. It was times like this that he wished the Kryptonian telepathic talent extended to species other than his own but, except in rare cases such as Lois and himself, it didn't.
Rene dismissed him after the final course was served and Clark returned to his room. The conversations of guests and staff in all parts of the big house made it difficult to pick out exchanges that might be significant, but he persisted, trying to screen out the voices that belonged to guests in the sitting room. Luthor's voice, speaking to someone, referring to the dance that they would be holding the two days hence, gave him chills but imparted no useful information. He trained his hearing to one section of the house after another, listening. Something was going on here; his reporters' instinct -- and plain old common sense -- said that events of which he, Lois and Jimmy were unaware were occurring on the island, appearing only in traces such as the mysterious hum, the man on the beach and the close observation of guests by Luthor's employees. If they could only find out a little more about those things, they might be able to figure out the rest.
"I don't care what you have to do -- find him!" He didn't recognize the voice that spoke suddenly in a whisper that was loud to his super-hearing, but there was something very familiar about it. It was coming from a telephone receiver, he decided, judging by the quality of the sound, and was located somewhere outside. "If he's dead, I want his body!"
"Sir, his tracking device isn't functioning." The answering voice was only slightly louder. The owner of the phone was definitely not in the house, and not far away from Clark's location. "I can't even get the transponder to peep at me and the last anyone saw him was yesterday evening. It's like he's vanished off the face of the earth, but I'll do my best."
"Do more than your best!" The voice on the phone had a characteristic Clark recognized all right. It was the voice of someone in authority. He pivoted in a circle, scanning the area outside with his x-ray vision, trying to spot the owner of the phone, but the voices were gone now, and the hum of an open circuit had also vanished. There were several men walking about the general area -- all Security, Clark realized -- and every one of them was carrying a cellular phone. He swore softly under his breath.
Well, whoever it was, Clark thought, was probably talking about the man Lois had found on the beach last night. He'd been right. There were more outside parties here than just the three of them. The question was, who was Group X? Were they law enforcement, or just possibly spies from another, competing company, or organized crime -- maybe even Intergang? Whoever they were, he, Lois and Jimmy would have to be careful not to reveal themselves until they knew with whom they were dealing.
He glanced at the clock. It was almost nine. Time to get up to Lois's room. They still had to get the zip disk to the Planet and find out what was on it.
There was a knock on the door and Clark glanced through the panel with his x-ray vision. With a slight sinking feeling, he recognized Annette, one of the young women employed in the kitchen. He'd noticed her checking him over surreptitiously during the past couple of days when they'd been working together, but he'd ignored it. He'd kind of gotten used to being looked over by women both in his Clark Kent and Superman personae, but playing the superhero tended to keep all but the boldest of women at bay and if they got too aggressive he could always fly off. As for when he was Clark Kent, he was fairly safe. No woman in her right mind would consider poaching on Lois's territory if she valued her skin. Truthfully, this particular hazard hadn't occurred to him, until now. He briefly considered taking flight out the window, but rejected the option. She'd probably seen him come in here.
Clark swallowed nervously and opened the door.
Annette was a slender, very pretty young woman in her early twenties. She smiled, letting her gaze sweep from Clark's face to his feet and back again. "Hello, Raoul," she purred. "I wondered if you'd like to get better acquainted."
"Um, hello, mademoiselle," he said. "I was actually going to read for a little while before going to bed."
"I thought you might like some company," she said. "After all, you barely know anyone here. It must be lonely for you. I'd like to help."
'I'll bet,' Clark thought. "Mademoiselle is very gracious," he said, "but I think not."
Annette slid a hand up his shoulders. "Are you sure?" she murmured. "I can be -- very friendly."
"Yes, mademoiselle," Clark said. He gently removed her hands from his collar. "I'm sure Mr. de Los Rios would not approve of such conduct among his employees. And I am certain my fiancee would not," he added.
"But your fiancee isn't here," Annette said, sounding a little displeased. "There's no need for her to know."
"I'm afraid that it would matter to me," Clark said. "I'm very sorry, mademoiselle." He moved her irresistibly out into the hall and shut the door before she could answer. He leaned against it for a moment and wiped the perspiration from his forehead. Whew! It was times like this that he realized the layer of sophistication he'd acquired since leaving Kansas years ago hadn't armored him so well that he felt no embarrassment in such a situation. Annette was just fortunate Lois hadn't seen this. She'd have been lucky to escape with her epidermis intact.
After a moment, he turned and locked his door. It was time to get moving.
When he arrived in her room, Lois handed him the disk. "We're going to check out the boathouse after most of the place is asleep," she told him. "Mamba came out the door while Jimmy and I were looking at the 'Buccaneer'. I'm sure he didn't recognize us, but I want to find out why he was there. If he tells Lex or Arianna about CJ...."
She let the sentence hang. Clark bent to kiss her lightly. "If he does, we'll do whatever we have to, to keep him safe," he said. "But you know, I kind of have the feeling that he won't."
Lois gave a faint smile. "I wish I had your confidence. See you in a little while. Try not to get distracted by anything -- unless it's life or death."
"I'll do my best," he assured her, and was headed for Metropolis a heartbeat later. There were several things he had to do. One was to get the prints from Pete and hand the disk over to Perry, as well as to check in with Dr. Klein to see what results he'd gotten with the digital camera. He also needed to check on the John Doe that he'd taken to Pine Tree Memorial on the mainland and see if the man had survived and if he had, if he was able to talk. That shouldn't take much time, he thought, hopefully. Last, but not least, he wanted to take a few minutes to talk to his parents and see the kids. He and Lois hadn't liked leaving them for so long, and although he had absolute confidence in Jonathan and Martha, it still made him feel better to play with CJ and hold little Marta for a few minutes. He knew that CJ was probably having a ball on the farm. His father had assured him that their son was dogging his every step and that it was like old times for him to have a little boy around again, with a baby girl along for good measure -- but Clark still missed them. He was sure Lois did as well, although she didn't say much about it. He was anxious to get this thing with Caribbean Imports solved so their little family could go back to normal -- or at least what was normal for them. And that meant that no matter what, Arianna and Luthor must not find out about CJ's origins. He didn't think they knew yet or they would have made some sort of move to acquire CJ, and if Mamba hadn't told them yet, he might not be intending to do so at all.
With a fervent prayer that it was so, Superman poured on the speed and made tracks for Metropolis.
Perry White was at home when Superman arrived in Metropolis, but he wasn't about to hand the computer disk over to anyone else. It wasn't that he didn't trust his coworkers, but when they had planned this out, they had agreed to keep the sensitive information confined to as few people as possible. Handing those photos over to Pete was stretching things a little, but Pete was trustworthy, and besides, he had far too much sense to try snooping into any investigation by Lane and Kent. Such investigations were well known to be not only dangerous, but potentially lethal.
Superman dropped down into the back yard of the White residence and strode up to knock on the kitchen door. It was nine-thirty at night and he hoped he wasn't interrupting anything, but a couple of downstairs lights were burning, so one of them was probably still up.
There were footsteps in the kitchen and a moment later Alice White opened the door. "Hello, Superman! I didn't expect to see you."
"Hello, Mrs. White," he said. "I just brought something for Mr. White from Lois and Clark."
"Oh. Perry's in the living room. Won't you come in?"
"Thank you." Clark gave her one of his patented smiles and stepped into the kitchen. "I'm sorry to interrupt you so late in the evening."
"Oh, it's no bother at all. Are the three of them all right?"
"They're fine," he said, reassuringly. "With any good luck they won't be there too much longer."
"I hope not," Alice said. "I know they're used to this -- at least Clark and Lois are -- but I still worry about them."
Superman smiled. "From what I understand, Jimmy is being a real help," he said. "Lois said he's amazingly good at undercover work."
"Jimmy?" Perry's voice said from the doorway. "Are we talkin' about the same Jimmy Olsen?"
Superman nodded. "I'm sure they'll give you a full report when they get back, but apparently he's done a very convincing job of playing the young executive." He held out the zip disk. "Clark said to give this to you."
Perry took it. "Thanks, Superman. Do I want to know where this is from?"
"Clark said he downloaded it from Arianna Carlin's personal computer. He didn't have time to look it over, though, and for some reason Jimmy's laptop and their cellular phones don't work on the island."
Perry's forehead puckered. "Did you say 'Arianna Carlin'?"
Superman nodded. "I'm afraid so. It's a long story, but to make it short, the Lex Luthor who kidnapped Lois from her wedding was a Type 'B' clone. Alejandro de Los Rios and his wife are the real Lex Luthor and Arianna Carlin."
Perry looked thunderstruck for several seconds. Finally, he said, "I guess that explains Caribbean Imports' M.O., then."
Superman nodded. "Anyway, this disk probably has a good deal of information on it that they don't want to become public knowledge. The file apparently covers several years' worth of business records from what Clark could tell."
"Sounds like a good start," Perry said. "I'll take care of it."
"Thanks. I need to go, now. There are several other things I have to do this evening." He turned to Alice. "Nice to see you, Mrs. White." In an instant, he was gone.
The remainder of his mission was accomplished quickly. Jonathan and Martha were pleased to see him, and CJ hurled himself into his father's arms when he walked in the door. He picked his small son up and listened to a report of his activities for the day from Jonathan. Little Marta was already asleep, so he contented himself with simply looking at her slumbering peacefully in her crib, then took his leave of his parents. He was on the final leg of his trip, headed for Pine Tree Memorial when his super-hearing picked up the distress call.
"Where *is* he?" Lois muttered to herself, glancing at the clock for the third time in five minutes. The clock, naturally, returned no reply. Jimmy watched her pace, but knew better than to urge her to relax. He'd made that mistake exactly once this evening. Instead, he wandered over to the little television set that sat unobtrusively on a table in the corner of Lois's room. In spite of the fact that his laptop computer, the cellular phones owned by the guests, as well as the house telephones, mysteriously refused to function, the television sets in the house seemed to work perfectly. He located the remote control (which also seemed to have no difficulties) and switched on the device. After a few seconds of searching, he located LNN. What he saw brought an exclamation from him.
"Hey, look at this!"
"What?" Lois asked.
"There's a couple of Navy ships in trouble off Maryland. It's that hurricane they've been reporting on for a couple of days. Superman's there."
"What hurricane?" Lois asked, turning to look at the screen.
"Oh, I forgot you weren't there." Jimmy hadn't removed his gaze from the screen. The grainy pictures were obviously taken by a long distance lens but they were unmistakably of Superman flashing through violent rain and ocean spray flung by hundred mile-an-hour winds, working to save the beleaguered ships from the sheer power and brutality of nature's fury. "The weather services have been watching Hurricane Iago. It 's been slowly moving up the coast, but hasn't hit land yet."
"Well, if they knew the storm was coming, how did they get caught out there?" Lois asked.
"Rescue operations, maybe" Jimmy said. "It might have moved faster than they expected, too." At that moment the picture shifted to a commentator, who was reporting on the successful rescue of a downed Navy pilot. More pictures of Superman followed as he worked to help the troubled ships. A glance at Lois's face was more informative than he was sure she would have wanted it to be, but he turned quickly back to watch the screen and said nothing.
After a moment, Lois looked at the clock again. "Something's held Clark up," she said. "If we're going to have a chance of finding anything, we better go without him. Are you *sure* you have everything?"
"I double-checked," Jimmy said. "Have you got your stuff ready? The idea of dealing with guard dogs is a little scary."
"I've got everything," Lois said. Jimmy glanced down at himself for one last check and then at her. They were both wearing black jeans and pullover black shirts, and Lois wore a pair of soft, black moccasin-like shoes with rubber soles that didn't make a sound when she walked. Jimmy wore black, tennis shoes.
"You're sure it will work?"
"Positive," Lois said. She patted a small, soft black leather bag that hung from her belt. "It's not exactly Batman's utility belt, but it's got what we need."
"I don't know. I think I'd rather have some mace. Red pepper doesn't seem strong enough to handle a dog."
"Mace won't even affect a dog," Lois said. "Ask any mail carrier. Believe me, this is better. It'll be better still if we don't have to use it at all."
"That's for sure. Anyway, you're the boss." Jimmy stopped talking and shut his mouth firmly to keep Lois from hearing his voice shake. He was sure it would if he said anything more. On the other hand, there was no way he'd back out of this. Aside from the fact that she was his friend, CK would expect him to help her, and help her he would, dogs or no dogs.
It wasn't that he didn't like dogs. Actually, he did like them -- friendly ones, anyway. Guard dogs, however, were another story. Once, as a kid, he'd been late coming home -- after faithfully promising his mom not to be late again. She'd been afraid he was hanging out after school with the wrong bunch of boys (and to be absolutely honest, he had been -- kind of, anyway). He'd taken a short cut through Old Man Peters's back yard -- probably the biggest mistake he'd made in all twelve years of his life. He'd lost the seat of his pants and been treed for two hours by the senior citizen's Rottweiler, and then his mom had added insult to injury by grounding him for a month. He'd never forgotten it.
Lois didn't seem to notice his sudden silence. She wrapped a long, white bathrobe about herself, tied the sash and opened the door. "The coast is clear. Let's go."
Jimmy pulled on his own robe, tightened the sash and followed.
When they reached the bottom of the stairs, Lois checked in both directions and they hurried to the front door, unlocked it and a moment later they had stepped outside. Jimmy closed the door gently behind them.
The moon had set, but the stars shone down brightly from a cloudless sky. Quickly, Jimmy removed his bathrobe and bundled it into a tight ball.
"Over here," Lois's voice whispered at him. He turned to follow her and they moved together, two dim shadows in the darkness across the perfectly manicured lawn, stopping by the hedge at the corner of the house to deposit their robes out of sight of passersby.
Far across the lawn on one of the walks, Jimmy saw a flicker of light. Lois saw it, too, for she was suddenly pulling him down into the deeper shadow of the hedge, and they crouched, breathing softly, waiting for the man -- probably one of Luthor's security guards -- to pass by. After several minutes, she poked her head up to look and gestured to him. Jimmy got to his feet and followed her.
They avoided the path. They could be far-too-easily seen on the light pavement. Instead, they stuck to the grassy areas with their trees and decorative bushes, hugging the shadows.
Lois was really *good* at this, he thought. It wasn't really a surprise; there was a reason that she was one-half of the most respected team of investigative reporters at the Planet -- or in the world, for that matter. If he could learn to do his job half as well as she did he'd be miles ahead of most of the other journalists in Metropolis, at the very least. He glanced back over his shoulder at the house and the dark grounds. The hedge that enclosed the gardens wasn't visible. They hadn't found anything during their search, but Lois was still certain that they concealed some secret, although neither of them had any idea what it could be. Maybe, Jimmy thought, Clark would have an insight on it when he got back.
Although, that was where he'd almost slipped a little while ago. He wasn't about to let either of them know what he'd figured out a few months back. They had a good reason for keeping that part of their life a secret, and he had no intention of worrying them unnecessarily over it. Maybe someday they'd see fit to tell him about it themselves, but he figured the only reason it had worked so well up to now was that no one had any reason to suspect any such thing.
They reached a clump of trees and bushes and Jimmy relaxed slightly. It was even darker here, and that made it less likely they would be seen.
Ahead of him, Lois ducked down beside a low bush and he hastened to join her. Somewhere not far away, someone coughed. He froze, listening intently.
Footsteps crunched on dry leaves and a voice said, "I dunno why Mr. D is so stuck on keepin' us out here all night. What's he think those rich guys are gonna do? Burglarize his yacht? They probably got their own."
"Don't start thinking again," another voice said, "it's going to get you in trouble. He's paying our salaries. That's all that matters."
"Yeah, yeah." The other man sounded annoyed. "It's cold out here."
"Well, why didn't you wear your jacket?"
There was the scrape of a match. "I don't care what the rules say. I'm gonna siddown and have a smoke."
"Don't take too long. We've got to punch in at the checkpoint in ten minutes."
The smell of tobacco smoke began to mix with the scent of pines and sea air. Jimmy turned his head cautiously. About twenty feet to his right, he could see the tip of the cigarette glowing orange in the darkness and make out the face of the Security man who held it. The other man was a dim silhouette against the dark sky. Thank God there was no moon, he thought. When you lived in a city, you tended to forget how dark it was out in the country, without artificial illumination. Here on the island, away from the lights of even a small town, the night sky was brilliant with stars, but that wasn't enough to show much of their surroundings. He held perfectly still, breathing quietly. Beside him, Lois was almost invisible. He couldn't even hear her breathing in spite of the fact that she crouched right next to him.
"Man, I've got the devil of a toothache," the first voice said. "I gotta ask the boss for the day off tomorrow to go see the dentist."
"Too bad," the second man said. "You got another one of those?"
"Sure, have one."
Silence for a moment. A match flared. The scent of tobacco smoke strengthened and there was a shower of sparks as the match was tossed aside. It landed on the ground ten feet from Jimmy and Lois, almost extinguishing itself. Jimmy held his breath.
"I got a bunion that's killin' me," the first guard announced. "I gotta get myself a new set of shoes."
'Oh great,' Jimmy thought in exasperation, 'now we get to hear about the guy's bunions!'
There was a spark of light at the corner of his eye. Carefully, he turned his head. The place where the match had landed was smoldering, and a tiny flame flickered among the dry leaves. Softly, he touched Lois's shoulder. She turned her head and he silently indicated the flame. He felt her stiffen and her eyes met his, agonized.
A soft breeze brushed his cheek. Jimmy watched the small, flickering flame hopefully, but it didn't go out. A thin line of fire appeared in the leaves and the tiny flame grew larger. There was a sudden, if miniature, puff of smoke and a second later a clump of dry pine needles ignited.
"We better get going," the second guard observed. "We'll be late checking in."
"Yeah." The first man dropped his glowing cigarette to the ground and stamped it out. The second guard took a long drag and dropped his as well.
"We better go," he said. "The boss doesn't ... hey!"
"Huh? Oh, hell!" The two rushed over to the burning leaves and stamped on them frantically. Sparks flew as they extinguished the flames. Jimmy held his breath, hoping against hope that the men wouldn't notice who was crouching in the shadows less than ten feet from them.
A gust of wind caught one of the burning leaves and whipped it into the air, whirling it away. Jimmy fully expected it to go out, but inexplicably it didn't. It landed in more dry pine needles, and within seconds, they were blazing. The two guards rushed to the new spot. Jimmy felt Lois's hand tugging on his arm and together they rose quickly to their feet and ran, crouching low, in the opposite direction. Behind them, they heard the curses of the two security guards as they fought to put out swiftly spreading flames.
Once out of sight of the guards, Lois bore to the left, back toward the boathouse and Jimmy followed close on her heels. The voices of the guards faded swiftly in the distance and at last, Lois stopped, panting, and leaned against a tree.
"Do you think they'll get it put out?" Jimmy gasped.
"I hope so." Lois took several deep breaths. "There's an awful lot of dry pine needles on the ground there, though, and you know how Christmas trees burn when they're dry."
Jimmy did. Every year in Metropolis, there were a number of fires around Christmas caused by a dry-as-tinder Christmas tree. "The air's pretty damp, though, what with the mist off the ocean. I wouldn't think it would go too far."
"At least it got us out of being caught," Lois said. "Maybe it'll pull some of the guards away from the boathouse and make it easier for us to break in."
The thought had occurred to him as well. "Well, we better get going. It probably won't last too long."
"You're right." Lois set off at a brisk pace, still making an effort to keep quiet, Jimmy trotting beside her. Within a couple of minutes they had reached the other side of the stand of trees and could see the dock and the boathouse below and to their right, black images against the faintly glowing water. It was a little lighter out of the trees, but not much. The black, irregular blotches of more scattered trees and bushes dotted the landscape between them and their goal and here and there lights bobbed vigorously in the darkness as people converged from several directions on the site of the fire. Lois and Jimmy paused in the fringe of the trees, watching. Somewhere a thin, high screeching pierced the air, making Jimmy wince.
"What's that?" he whispered.
"Fire alarm," Lois said. "Come on."
"Sure. Everybody's running around like ants at a picnic. Nobody's going to notice us. They can barely see us." He could see her teeth flash in the dimness. "Get out your flashlight. If anybody takes an interest in us, shine the light in his face, call him a moron and tell him to get over to the fire."
Jimmy considered that. Maybe the direct approach was the best one. At least they wouldn't be sneaking around, looking suspicious if anyone noticed them. "Okay, you're the boss."
Lois was right, he thought a few minutes later. They had encountered only one person who had been even slightly curious and Jimmy's angry reprimand sent him scurrying off in the direction of the white column of smoke now visible against the stars. Lights were coming on in the mansion, he noticed and the fire alarm continued to screech. With luck, the confusion would be enough to keep people busy for some time to come. The fire appeared to be spreading fast in all the dry leaves and fallen pine needles. It most likely wouldn't go much beyond the stand of trees, though. Manicured, green lawn didn't usually burn very well, and the people fighting the fire would probably put it out pretty fast, but he sure as heck wouldn't want to be the guy who had accidentally started it. Luthor wasn't the kind of boss who took well to that kind of ineptitude.
As they approached the boathouse, Jimmy felt himself tensing up. If the guard dogs were still here, things could get a little awkward. They weren't likely to be distracted by a fire.
No one was visible as they moved softly to the pier. Where were the dogs? Even the deck of the yacht appeared to be deserted.
"Where are they?" he whispered.
Lois shrugged. In her hand, she clutched a small canister of red pepper spray. "If anything moves, spray it first and ask questions afterwards," she muttered. "I don't want to get chewed up."
Neither did Jimmy, but the plan Lois had intended to use to distract the guards and their dogs didn't appear to be necessary. Against the sky, the white smoke had turned dark, a sure sign that the fire fighters were making inroads on the fire, and from the same direction he could hear the deep barks of the German shepherds. If Luthor discovered what had happened at the boathouse while his guards were otherwise occupied, however, he could think of some guards who might never work Security on Crescent Island again. He just hoped Lois would hurry this up. Sooner or later, one of the guards was going to remember what they were supposed to be doing and the two of them would be in the soup.
In contrast to the confusion behind them, the area around the boathouse was quiet. Jimmy could hear the lapping of the water around the pier supports, in spite of the wail of the fire siren and the distant cacophony of voices. There was no sound of human voices anywhere nearer, and even the night songs of the island's insects had ceased -- little wonder, he reflected, with all the riot and ruckus up the hill.
"Keep an eye out." Lois bent over the lock to the boathouse door. Jimmy didn't answer, but he couldn't have been more alert if he'd tried. Every nerve in his body seemed to be aware of his surroundings, but nothing appeared to be moving except for the slight rise and fall of the yacht in the water. He started when a small fish leaped and splashed back. He and Lois stayed close to the wall of the boathouse. There was a very good chance that at least one or two people remained on the yacht even if he didn't see anyone.
His suspicion proved to be right a moment later. Something scraped, and a dark figure swung itself over the rail of the vessel and dropped to the pier with a muffled thump. Jimmy strained his eyes in the darkness, trying to keep track of the man. The figure crouched low and went over the side of the pier. A few seconds later he heard the sound of oarlocks. The man was rowing away.
"Who the dickens was that?" Lois whispered.
"Search me. Can't you get it?"
"It's open. Let's go." On the word, she pulled the door open. Jimmy expected to hear the screech of rusty hinges, but the door moved silently; evidently, the hinges on the boathouse were well cared for.
Lois squeezed inside first, and Jimmy followed her, pulling the door shut behind him as softly as it had opened.
It was even darker inside than outside. Out there, they had the benefit of the faint light from the stars and the luminescence of the ocean for their eyes to utilize. Inside the building, there was complete and utter darkness. Jimmy stood still, unmoving, listening.
Silence greeted his ears, except for the lapping of water against the sides of the boathouse. Lois's hand found his shoulder in the darkness and her voice whispered in his ear, "Cover your eyes. I'm going to turn on my flashlight."
Jimmy obeyed. The burst of light seemed incredibly brilliant, even through his closed eyelids, and he waited for several seconds before he opened them a crack. Expanded to their full size in the total darkness, it took his pupils a little longer than usual to readjust, and he wiped away tears, generated by his eyes in protest of the light, with the back of his hand.
Lois had turned on her penlight and was shielding it with her hand as her own eyes readjusted. Jimmy blinked through rainbows caused by his watering eyes, curious to see what the great mystery of the boathouse was.
For a few seconds, he was disappointed. Nothing seemed at all unusual. There were several small craft moored in here, floating in the water. The huge, echoing building was shadowed, but seemed empty.
"There's nothing here!" he said, aware that he sounded aggrieved.
"I'm not so sure of that," Lois said slowly. "Superman said there was a lot of lead in this structure, and it's fairly new. It may be hiding something."
She broke off. Running feet were pounding along the boards outside, and voices were shouting. "Quick; hide!" she whispered. "Someone's coming! Come on!"
It was close to four in the morning when a weary, damp, salt-incrusted Superman arrived at Crescent Island.
Contrary to what he'd expected, the island wasn't quiet. Security milled around the grounds; there were lights everywhere and a stand of trees part way between the mansion and the boathouse was still smoldering slightly. There was a heavy smell of smoke over the whole area.
Now what had happened? He couldn't believe Lois would actually have set fire to Luthor's property so she could sneak into the boathouse without being noticed, but she wasn't in her room and neither was Jimmy. On the other hand, Luthor was striding about the grounds, giving orders in the voice of a man barely containing his rage. Several, but not all of the guests were wandering around the lawn, or gaping at the fire-damaged trees. Much of the staff was out here as well. Raoul had better get out here and be seen, he decided. Maybe he could find out what had happened. If Lois and Jimmy were involved, he needed to know.
At that point, he spotted two bathrobes balled up and shoved deep into a hedge at the corner of the mansion. Lois's and Jimmy's, he realized at once. And they would be found soon, at this rate. The best he could do right now was to retrieve them and put them back when the excitement had died down, assuming that the two of them weren't already in custody.
Suiting his actions to the thought, he moved in faster than the eye could follow and appropriated them. A few minutes later, Raoul Desrosiers made his appearance, wrapped in a colorful bathrobe and wearing a pair of beaded slippers, mixing in with the rest of the crowd of watching staff.
No one knew how the fire had started, it seemed. Two Security men had discovered it an hour ago and sounded the alarm. There appeared to be no explanation for the event, so unless Lois and Jimmy were being held somewhere secretly, they hadn't been caught. But where were they?
The three of them had planned on investigating the boathouse tonight; the emergency with the Navy ships had delayed him and knowing Lois, she had probably decided to go without him. So, if she and Jimmy had done that, the best place to start would probably be there. But first....
He walked slowly down the hill to the stand of trees that was still smoldering, and to the crowd of people milling around, looking for any more hot spots. With all the traffic around the burned section, it would be a small miracle if anyone found anything of use, but he swept the area with his own special vision and saw something the others had missed.
A pair of blackened cigarette butts lay close together in the scorched vegetation. Close examination showed him that the tobacco at the very center of one, close to the filter, wasn't burned, and was still very slightly moist. Fairly sure that he had located the real cause of the fire, he moved forward and squatted down on his heels beside the objects.
A man, wearing the insignia of the Security chief, bent down next to him seconds later. "What is it? Or are you just sight-seeing?"
"Only a couple of cigarette butts," Clark said, his English carefully accented. "It may mean nothing."
"Maybe. And maybe you just found what started the fire. Dobbs! Milton! Get over here!" He nodded at Clark. "Thanks, buddy. You may have saved us a whole lot of trouble."
"It is nothing," Clark assured him, rising to his feet. He moved away, leaving a growing crowd of Security men behind him. The discovery of the cigarette butts should raise all kinds of questions, he thought, especially about the two Security men who had supposedly discovered the fire. He had a moment of worry over what Luthor would do to them, but upon reflection he doubted much more would happen than their simple dismissal. Luthor was trying, after all, to avoid attention. If people died on his island, it was sure to make the authorities curious and lead to some kind of an investigation. He wouldn't want that, Clark thought. He also had to admit to some relief upon finding the cigarettes. He hadn't really believed that Lois would have started a fire as a diversion, but she wasn't called Mad Dog for her flower show articles, after all.
A short time later he was hovering over the boathouse, listening. Anyone who had seen him would certainly have received a shock at the sight of the assistant chef, clad in a colorful lounging robe, floating fifty feet above the pier, but fortunately it was too dark for ordinary eyes to see much of anything. Two uniformed Security guards with their dogs patrolled the area, and everything seemed normal, but he couldn't shake the feeling that it wasn't. Where were Lois and Jimmy? Did Luthor and Arianna Carlin have them locked up in some room, somewhere? Did Dr. Carlin know that Miss Davenport was actually Lois Lane? Did Luthor?
Clark circled over the pier, listening and scanning the boathouse and surrounding water for any sign of his wife and his friend. Nothing. Still, if something had happened to them, it seemed likely to him that Luthor wouldn't have been out there, obviously on the edge of sheer fury.
He began to circle, slowly spiraling outward, straining his ears to hear her heartbeat. She had to be around here somewhere. He could almost feel it.
Lois and Jimmy crouched in the bottom of one of the small rowboats moored inside the boathouse and tried to breathe as quietly as possible. Inside this echoing structure, the slightest sound would be magnified tenfold. The door was yanked open suddenly and lights flashed on overhead. A voice said, "Nothing here. Where the devil did he go?"
From somewhere outside, a voice shouted, "The dinghy's gone!"
Someone swore crudely and unimaginatively; the cuss words echoed over and over in the big boathouse. "Get out the motorboat and find out where he went!" The lights went off and the door slammed shut.
The two of them remained crouched in the rowboat, but Lois's mind was full of speculation. What was going on? Who were the men after? The unknown man they had seen exit the yacht could very well be the quarry. He had, after all, been on the yacht, left it as stealthily as he could and rowed away.
There had also been the unexplained presence of the wounded man on the beach. It seemed that Clark was right when he said another group appeared to be involved, but who were they? Law enforcement, or one of Luthor's competitors? Both were equally likely, considering.
"Wow," Jimmy murmured. "Investigations with you are never dull, Lois. They must be chasing that guy we saw leave the yacht. I guess that's our good luck, but now what do we do?"
"Now we look around. I still think they're hiding something here."
"A hidden trap door, maybe?" Jimmy hazarded. "Isn't that a bit cliché?"
"Yeah, but a cliché gets to be a cliché because it's something that gets done a lot," Lois pointed out. "Like the butler."
Lois grinned. "You know; 'The butler did it'. Just look around for anything out of place."
"Gotcha." Jimmy switched on his flashlight, shading it with one hand. Both waited for several moments until their eyes had adjusted, and slowly scrambled back onto the wooden planks.
"You take that side, I'll take this one." Lois flashed her light around, trying to pinpoint a nagging feeling of something not quite right that she had felt ever since her first quick survey of the interior of this place. For some time the room was silent except for the magnified sounds of their breathing and the occasional incautious footstep.
Fifteen minutes later Lois had traversed the entire length of the wall, examining every inch of it closely with her flashlight beam, with no results. "Jimmy --" she was beginning, when her younger colleague, who had been working his way in the other direction, broke in.
"Lois, am I crazy, or is this place smaller in here than out there?"
Lois didn't reply at first. Now that her attention was drawn to it, the place did seem a little smaller, but she couldn't be sure, peering around by the aid of a pair of flashlights. "I guess you could be right," she said, finally. "I can't really tell."
"Well, it sure feels like it to me," Jimmy said. "I guess I'm sort of oriented to notice spatial relationships, being a photographer, you know? It just seems to me that the end of the building that comes in contact with the shore is shorter than before. I mean, it should be resting on dry land, and it isn't."
"You're kidding." Lois trotted down the boards toward the side of the boathouse that should be resting on solid ground.
Jimmy was right. The boathouse wall sliced directly across the deck and the section of water, while from the outside, she recalled that the structure extended a good ten feet onto the island itself. The wooden supports at that end would be seen to be driven into rock if they had been exposed, but the building walls were flush with the surface of the island, so its supports at that end weren't visible.
Slowly, cautious of noise, she moved up to the wall and rapped lightly on it with her knuckles.
The sound that came back confirmed it. "I think there's another room back there."
"Yeah, I figured that." Jimmy was flashing his light over the wall. "It's pretty clever, you know? I mean, unless you're looking for it, you'd never notice. I wonder how you get the door open?"
"Good question. This place reminds me of Dr. Grumman's secret lair -- you know: the one who was behind the Wedding Destroyer. Only these people don't have any candle holders on the walls or suits of armor standing around. There must be some kind of lever or something somewhere."
"Well, how about that mounted trout?" Jimmy gestured to the large fish placed high on the wall. "I'd think you'd put that the kind of thing over your mantle, not on the wall of a locked boathouse."
"Maybe," Lois said. "On the other hand, this is *Luthor's* boathouse. He's bound to decorate it with all sorts of nautical things, just for the sake of the image. Look at that stuff." She gestured around at the walls of the building, where various objects were hung, an anchor, a boat hook, and a spyglass being nearest.
"Well, I'd think a mounted fish might get moldy in a place like this," Jimmy said. "It's pretty damp. Besides, a trout is a freshwater fish. There might be another reason for it. Try it."
Lois shrugged and stretched her hand up but, even standing on her toes, her fingers missed it by inches.
Jimmy reached past her and tugged on the fish. For a second, it resisted but then it tilted downward and the wall rotated outward, revealing a dimly lit, but empty room beyond.
"There's nothing here," Jimmy said, sounding disappointed.
Lois reached out to catch the wall. "Hold this, Jim," she said. "Just because there's nothing here now, doesn't mean there wasn't anything here earlier."
Jimmy caught the wall and Lois slipped into the room.
At first impression, it seemed as if Jimmy was right. The place was just a bare-walled room about ten feet across, but, flashing her light on the floor she could see scuff marks on the wood. There had been, apparently, a lot of traffic through here at some time or other. Within a few seconds she had located the lever on this side to open the door, and beckoned to Jimmy. "Come on in."
Jimmy obeyed and the door closed gently behind them.
He flashed his light around. "What are we looking for?"
Lois shrugged. "I'm not sure. Evidence, I guess. Something to tell us what was stored here, and maybe why they're still guarding this place with dogs."
Jimmy nodded. "Sure. Drugs, maybe?"
"Maybe. With Lex, you never know. He had a finger in just about every criminal enterprise in Metropolis. Drugs, illegal weapons, prostitution, protection ... the list is endless."
Both were silent for some time, minutely examining walls and floor for anything that might give them a clue about what had been here. It was Jimmy, examining the far right corner, who called out softly. "Lois, come look at this!"
"What?" Lois was rapidly developing a serious respect for Jimmy. It was obvious she had greatly underestimated his abilities as an investigative journalist, though why she had done so was a mystery, now. She'd always known Jimmy was very bright and talented. Look at how he took a computer and practically made it sit up and beg when they were looking for information. He had a way of digging out the most obscure details about suspects, just when they needed them.
"Down here." Jimmy was kneeling in the corner, shining his flashlight on the wooden boards. "See that little, metal ring? It might be a catch. And I think...." He had pulled out a pocket knife and was slipping the blade between the cracks. The knife sank into the crack in the wood all the way and he slid it along, finding no obstruction. "I think it's a trap door."
Lois knelt beside him, shining her flashlight on the discovery. The unobtrusive metal ring was set flush with the floor, and was just large enough for an index finger to fit within it. "I think you're right." They looked at each other for several seconds. It was Jimmy who spoke.
"Should we? Or should we wait for Clark?"
Lois hesitated for a long moment. Logically, she knew she should wait for Clark. Superman could protect them against just about anything the bad guys could throw at them. On the other hand, it had been so long since she'd investigated anything like this on her own. Ever since the birth of little Marta she'd been careful, and with good reason. She would still be careful, she told herself, but the old Lane spark of curiosity and the drive to discover the answers to this mystery prodded at her. Besides, it was just barely possible, since this situation involved Lex Luthor, that the man might have some protection from the interference of Superman around in the form of Kryptonite. And if Clark ran into Kryptonite while Jimmy was present, they could kiss his secret goodbye.
The last rationalization was the deciding one. "Let's go," she said. "We can at least do a little scouting around and see the lay of the land. We don't have to do any more than take a quick look."
"All right," Jimmy agreed, and she almost grinned at the undisguised excitement in his voice. Jimmy might be growing up, but he still retained some of the recklessness of his younger days.
Clark wouldn't approve, she knew, but what the heck. She gestured to Jimmy to go ahead and watched while he slid the blade of his knife under the little metal ring and pried it upward. It came easily, rotating on an invisible hinge. With a slightly shaky breath, he slipped a finger into the ring and twisted it. There was a sudden "snick-snick!" sound as a concealed latch released itself and with a faint purr, a six-foot by six-foot square of the seemingly solid boards dropped two feet and glided smoothly aside. In a silence that was almost eerie, something began to rise out of the aperture. Lois and Jimmy scrambled back, but there was no need. Before them stood an elevator car, and as they watched the doors slid open to reveal a dimly lit interior.
They looked at each other again, then Lois took the initiative and stepped into the car. Jimmy followed her.
"What time is it?" Jimmy asked in a whisper. The elevator was moving slowly and smoothly downward, toward what he didn't know. Maybe it would have been a good idea for one of them to have stayed behind to let Clark know about this place, he thought belatedly.
"Nearly four," Lois replied as softly.
"Do you think there's anyone down there?" he asked.
"Who knows?" Lois said. "Just be ready to move fast if you have to. This is quite an operation. I wonder how they managed to put in all this stuff without anyone knowing what was going on?"
"Well," Jimmy said, distracted by the problem, "you said de Los Rios has been the owner of Caribbean Imports for ten years, didn't you?"
"Yeah. The *real* de Los Rios, though."
"I've been thinking about that," Jimmy said. "I want to do some digging when we get off this island to see if I'm right, but what if Lex Luthor *is* the real owner of Caribbean Imports? He'd have had years to fix this place up the way he wanted."
"Is it? Remember, he and Arianna Carlin were married on a cruise ship in the Caribbean, and then they were divorced about a year later. What if Arianna or maybe some relative of hers, was the owner of the company? What if he somehow used the marriage to become the owner, instead?"
Lois looked thoughtful. "I hadn't thought of that. You know, you could be right. It would be just like Lex to pull off something of the sort." She made a face. "It would be just his style to marry some woman so he could get his hands on her company."
"Yeah," Jimmy said. "And wasn't it right about the time that he married Arianna that he came into money and founded LexCorp? What if he decided he needed Caribbean Imports as insurance for himself, just in case? He could have 'sold' it to 'Alejandro de Los Rios', say about ten years ago. By that time he was pretty heavily into big time crime."
Lois nodded. "It's an angle we should investigate when we get back. That's pretty good thinking."
Jimmy looked at his shoes. "After everything that low-life has put us through, I've started to figure out how his mind works."
Lois grimaced. "That's a scary thought."
The elevator slid to a stop with a soft sigh of compressed air and the doors opened. Jimmy found himself staring out at a rough, stone-floored hallway brightly illuminated by fluorescent bulbs in the ceiling. Bare electrical wiring was strung between the lights, and a low, heavy vibration reverberated softly through the air about them. No one was in view at the moment, but he had no dependence whatsoever that it would remain that way.
Apparently, neither did Lois. She glanced quickly around and left the car, beckoning him after her.
There were doors at intervals on either side of the hallway, each with a little window in them, but they were closed and there was darkness on the other side. Up ahead the way ended in a crossing corridor, and from it, Jimmy could hear voices approaching.
Casting an alarmed look at Lois, he yanked on one of the doors. To his surprise, it opened and he and Lois scurried inside, letting it close behind them.
They were in what looked to Jimmy like a laboratory. There was the scent of odd chemicals in the air, and over all of it, he could smell the strong odor of slightly scorched coffee grounds. In one corner, a small, orange pinpoint of light was obvious in the darkened room, and upon examination with his flashlight, he could see that a coffeepot sat upon a hot plate that someone had forgotten to turn off.
The voices were coming nearer, and Lois tugged on his arm, dragging him toward the back of the room. "Turn off that light! Come on!" she whispered.
Jimmy obeyed and followed her on tiptoe. "What?"
They scrambled underneath the nearest table. Jimmy knocked his knee sharply against a chair leg and smothered an exclamation of pain at the needles of agony that shot through him. They held completely still as the unknown passersby paused in front of the door.
" -- Don't see how Mr. D can expect us to do our jobs with that generator conking out like that every few hours," a male voice fretted. "He's got to get it repaired."
"The techs will be in tomorrow," another, deeper voice said, sounding irritated. "You're whining like an old woman and it drives me nuts. Just keep things going until then, understand? Mr. D won't be happy if you screw up."
"I'll do my best, but I don't guarantee anything --"
Jimmy and Lois looked at each other as the voices began to move slowly away. At last, Lois whispered, "I think they're gone. That was close." She crawled from under the table and got to her feet. Jimmy also stood up, rubbing his kneecap.
"Ow!" he whispered. "What now?"
She pointed and he followed her pointing finger. In the rear of the room was an alcove containing a long clothes rack, and hanging from the rack was a row of wrinkled white lab coats.
"Put one of these on," Lois said, appropriating one as she spoke.
Jimmy obeyed but entered a caveat. "You don't think anyone is really going to be fooled by one of these, do you? Everybody here probably knows everybody else."
"Up close, probably," Lois said, "but from a distance it might fool them. I'm just looking for camouflage. I want to know what's going on around here and we need to blend in."
"Well, it wouldn't be hidden like this if it was legal," he said.
"That's for sure. But whatever it is, it's big. It nearly got that guy on the beach killed, for one thing, and he was taking pictures of something."
"Do you think he found this place?"
"Maybe. We'll know when Superman gets the pictures back from Dr. Klein. In the meantime, we need to do some discreet looking around. Are those guys gone yet?"
"I think so." Jimmy moved to the door and peeked carefully out the little window. "No sign of them."
"Good. Let's go. Keep your face down and try to be inconspicuous."
There was no one in sight when they exited into the hall once more. Together, they hurried on toward the T crossing.
There was no one in either direction when Jimmy peeked cautiously around the corner. The way to the right boasted one door in the right wall and ended six feet farther on in a solid wall, but the left hallway extended on as far as he could see. He reported as much to Lois.
She frowned slightly, obviously thinking, then turned to the right.
The door, unlike the one to the lab, was locked, and a sign on the panel announced: "Authorized Personnel Only". Lois produced her hairpin. "This looks promising."
Jimmy took a deep breath, and turned to watch the hall while Lois worked. Not that it had ever crossed his mind before, but he could see how Lois managed to hold up her end of the Lane and Kent partnership without much effort. He was a little surprised that Clark managed to keep up with her, even with his special advantages. It was a good thing that Clark had come along, he reflected. No other guy could possibly have been on an equal footing with Lois Lane.
A soft little exclamation from Lois alerted him to the fact that the door was unlocked and he turned to follow her as she eased it open.
The room was dark, of course, but they switched on their flashlights. He heard Lois draw in her breath. "Oh, my God!"
Canisters. Jimmy stared at them. Big, empty canisters, perhaps seven feet in length, which looked eerily familiar. "Lois -- aren't those...."
"Yeah," Lois said, shakily. "They're clone canisters."
Clark circled fruitlessly. The sense that Lois was around here somewhere was strong, but wherever she was, he didn't think she was in trouble. 'At least, not yet,' a little voice in the back of his mind told him, cynically.
He shook it off. Lois was a very competent investigative reporter, more than capable of taking care of herself. 'But she's needed Superman's help to get out of trouble plenty of times,' the little voice reminded him, insidiously. Sometimes her curiosity and investigative spirit overruled her common sense. And this situation was fraught with peril. If Luthor found out who she was, the consequences could be disastrous, and he didn't even want to think what would happen if Arianna Carlin discovered the truth.
The confusion up the hill was beginning to die down. He completed a wider circle, scanning the ground and the water for any sign of Lois or Jimmy. It was as he was passing over the gardens that he recalled that they had been going to check them over earlier, and that Lois had seemed to think that there might be more there than met the eye. He'd heard her tell Jimmy that Mamba had disappeared into them. Well, he wasn't doing any good circling around up here. Maybe he could attack the problem from another angle.
Still floating invisibly in the air, he began to scan the gardens, for what he didn't know. If Mamba had vanished into them, how had he done it?
As he watched, he realized someone was entering the garden through the gap in the hedge, and, with a start, he again recognized the dour pilot who had brought him to the island. The man glanced backward once, as if to be certain that he was unobserved and then moved swiftly to the left on one of the paths that hugged the wall. He appeared to be watching his feet and Clark heard him counting under his breath. When he reached seventeen, he knelt and appeared to examine the flagstone under his feet. With one hand he reached out and tipped one of the apparently solid pieces of decorative stone that lined the walk. Clark held his breath as one of the flagstones swung downward as if on a hinge, revealing a narrow flight of steps descending into darkness. The pilot got to his feet, flashing a small penlight down into the hole, and after a thorough examination, stepped into it.
Clark watched as he descended the flight of stairs and the stone swung back into place. X-raying the stone after it had closed, he realized how clever Luthor had been. None of the other stones had anything but dirt under them. This one was lined with lead, but it looked no different than any of the others and if he had not known what to look for, even with his special vision, he would have missed it.
Instantly, he made a super-speed trip to his room to change into black slacks and a T-shirt. This was Luthor that they were dealing with, after all. As long as his arch-enemy didn't recognize him as Superman, he was relatively safe. He couldn't count on that if Luthor or Arianna twigged to who he really was. Luthor had a disturbing habit of preparing himself for all eventualities. He would have wagered his job at the Daily Planet on the chance that the two of them had at least a nugget of Kryptonite around somewhere, to protect themselves against him. Less than a minute later, he landed by the camouflaged trapdoor and tilted the rock that opened it.
He moved silently down the stairs. If anyone had observed him, they might have noticed that his feet didn't quite touch the surface of the steps, but there was no one to see. The pilot had disappeared. At the bottom of the stairs, he looked around. He stood in a rough-walled, stone hallway. Bare wiring ran along the ceiling and walls, and fluorescent lighting glared down from the roof. All around him, echoed the mysterious hum that he had noticed the first night here, but now it was no longer barely noticeable. It vibrated through his flesh and bones at a tooth-grating frequency. Somewhere a very powerful generator was running.
From somewhere, he heard the murmur of voices and he focused in on the sound with his super-hearing.
" -- Er Eight has developed anomalies. Scrap it and bring up the reserve."
"Mr. D isn't going to be happy. He needs it done in two more days."
"There's nothing I can do about it. A defective product won't suit him, either. I'm sure he'll come up with an alternate plan."
"I'm more worried about Mrs. D. She's been around a lot more than usual in the last couple of days. Something's up."
"She's checking on her special project. Don't ask."
Clark glided softly forward toward the voices. They were some distance away, but he zeroed in on them unerringly and directed his x-ray vision through the walls toward them
Two men, whom he had never seen before, were moving between ten clone canisters. As he watched, one of them opened a canister and the two men removed a...thing.
He stared at it in horror and quelled a sudden surge of nausea. The clone appeared to be about the physical age of a six-year-old child, but something had gone terribly wrong with its development. It was moving weakly, and as he watched, it began to convulse. He looked quickly away. It wasn't that he hadn't seen plenty of grisly things in his career as Superman, but he had never grown inured to them and never wanted to. The day he stopped feeling the suffering of others would be the day he hung up his cape for good. There was nothing he could do to save the life of the clone; it was near death and to try to do so might be an even greater cruelty, but it still turned his stomach to know what was happening. Finding Lois and Jimmy had to be his first priority, and then he could bring the authorities here to stop this business. Whatever Luthor and his former wife were up to couldn't be good for anyone, and he was sure this was part of a much larger plan to somehow recreate LexCorp as Lois had suggested. But where were Lois and Jimmy?
He paused, took a deep breath and tuned his super-hearing, searching for the one heartbeat he would recognize among literally billions of other people. Almost at once he heard it, and with it another that was probably Jimmy's. They were here, although they were some distance away.
As he started forward, the sudden high shrill of an alarm made him jump and an expressionless voice began to speak.
"Intruder alert, intruder alert. Security personnel, report to Section Alpha-4 immediately. Intruder alert...."
Lois and Jimmy left the room with the empty cloning cylinders in silence. Without a word, Lois led the way down the long, stone corridor, past the one that had brought them here. She had no intention of getting lost, and noted its location carefully. It occurred to her that they might have to retreat in a hurry, if something went wrong, but with luck, they could find another way out. Trying to make their exit through the boathouse, past armed guards and German shepherd dogs wasn't something she could contemplate with any sense of confidence.
There were doors on either side of the hallway, all closed and with their lights off. Evidently, the night shift wasn't very active. From one room, she heard the unmistakable sound of a snore and raised an eyebrow at Jimmy.
Her companion sneaked a quick look through the little glass window. "Security guard," he whispered. "I guess he got tired."
"Yeah." They were approaching an intersecting hallway, where one of the doors was partially open and yellow light spilled out -- definitely not a fluorescent light source such as they had encountered up until now. Lois paused, listening, but other than a soft, high hum, she heard nothing. Gathering her courage, she peeked into the room.
In a chair behind a desk, a silver-haired man was leaning forward, his head on his arms and sound asleep. A small desk lamp with an incandescent bulb shed a puddle of yellow light across the desk and the surrounding area. The man turned his head and muttered in his sleep, and in a flash Lois recognized him. Isaac Mamba looked older than when she had last seen him up close but it was still unmistakably the same scientist who had been involved in the manufacture of the Lois clone and who had given CJ to Clark and her.
"Is that --" Jimmy whispered.
Lois nodded. "It sure is. Let's get...."
Mamba lifted his head and his eyes met hers. For a moment, he stared at her, and then he raised a hand and covered his face. "Oh, God." He lowered his hand. "I'm not dreaming, am I?"
Lois opened her mouth to speak and closed it again. Mamba got ponderously to his feet.
"Miss Lane, you have to get out of here, off this island. Get away; call the police. If they catch you here, you and your friend are dead."
Footsteps echoed in the hall and Mamba looked alarmed. "Hurry -- get behind the door." He was already at the opening when someone knocked on the frame.
"Yes, what is it?"
"Just checkin' Doc. You know you're supposed to report in every hour."
"I fell asleep!" Mamba sounded cross and tired.
"Okay, okay." The other man's voice was conciliatory. "If you want to sleep, check into your room and we won't have a problem."
"I'll do that, as soon as I finish my notes." Mamba stood still, while the other man's footsteps departed down the hallway, then he closed the door. He turned back to his unexpected guests, who were staring at him in shock.
Lois said, "How did you...aren't you...I don't understand," she finished, weakly.
Mamba ran his hand through the tight, greying curls on his head. "Miss Lane," he began hurriedly, "you don't have a lot of time. You've got to get out of here and get the police. If you're caught, I can't help you. Arianna will --" He broke off, running his hand through his hair again until it stood on end. "Did you really think I was here because I wanted to be?"
"You're not?" Jimmy asked.
"No! I went to sleep in a hotel room one night, and the next morning I woke up here. I just want out! No more clones, no more working for Arianna Luthor! But they won't let me. I've been here for over a year, growing clones and keeping myself alive. I've never been able to get away." He slumped down onto his desk. "Miss Lane, you're my last hope. I've been trying to figure out a way to contact you since last night -- when I realized you were here."
"How did --"
He closed his eyes briefly. "When I recognized your clone, of course. He's cloning all of you. Yours -- it didn't match the picture of Kellie Davenport, but it still looked familiar. I created the first one of you, you know." He gave a grim little smile. "Knowing you, it didn't take long to put it together. I've managed to keep them from seeing the clone, but I won't be able to for much longer."
Lois focused on one important sentence. "He's *cloning* us?"
Mamba nodded. "You have to get out of here, Miss Lane. I know what you think of me and you're right, but you've got to believe me. I'm not doing this because I want to. There's a way out through the gardens, so you don't have to face the dogs. Here, let me draw you a diagram." He picked up a piece of computer paper and sketched a few lines on it. "It's the best I can do. Here. Get out of here as fast as you can." He thrust it at her.
At that moment, the door opened without warning and a uniformed guard entered. "Doc, the generator's giving us trouble again -- hey!" His hand flashed toward his sidearm, just as Jimmy swung his fist. It connected with the man's temple and the guard crashed to the floor, but was scrambling awkwardly up again almost instantly. Lois kicked out hard and her foot connected glancingly with his jaw. The man went down again, but Lois was wearing soft rubber-soled shoes and he was still conscious. He struggled to get to his feet, his mouth opening to yell.
There was a smashing sound, and a shower of shattered crockery. The guard sank to the floor, out for the count. Lois looked up to see Mamba, the remains of a coffee mug still clutched in his hand. As she met his eyes, he dropped the broken shard. "Oh, God --"
"That tears it," Lois said. "When he wakes up, he'll report you, too. You'll have to come with us. You'd better show us the way out."
It was five minutes later that the intruder alarm went off. Mamba grimaced. "Hurry, Miss Lane. We have to make it to the exit before they seal it off."
"Are we going to?" Lois asked, steadily.
Mamba dropped his gaze to the floor. "Probably not."
"In that case, is there somewhere we can hide where they won't find us for a while? My husband and Superman will be looking for us before long, if they aren't already. They'll figure out where we are. Clark knew I wanted to check out the boathouse."
Mamba looked hopeful for a moment, then his face fell. "If Luthor finds out Superman is here, he'll be ready. He has a piece of Kryptonite that he got from somewhere. He showed it to me one day. He's always said Kryptonite is power."
Lois swallowed and lifted her chin. "Superman already knows Alejandro de Los Rios is Lex Luthor. He knows there's a possibility of Kryptonite. We'll have to hope he'll be able to find us before Lex does. Where can we hide?"
Mamba bit his lip. "I hope you're right, Miss Lane. All right, we'll hide. This way."
Clark hovered near the ceiling as two Security guards hurried past. The alarm still blared, and he covered his ears against the noise. Tracking Lois and Jimmy by the sound of Lois's heartbeat was going to be difficult if not impossible as long as that racket continued.
He needed to find some way to blend in. Sooner or later, someone was going to notice him up here. With his x-ray vision, he scanned the general area. Three more Security men were headed in this direction and the one farthest away seemed to be about his size. Well, he'd never mugged anyone before, but it was never too late to learn....
He waited, covering his ears against the noise of the alarm, while the first two men went by. When his unfortunate target appeared, the man never knew what hit him. He didn't even have time to yelp in surprise before he was trussed up tightly, gagged and blindfolded.
Clark left him in his underwear in what appeared to be a supply closet and exited into the hallway again, clad in the man's uniform. Probably everyone here knew everyone else's face but if he kept moving there shouldn't be a problem. Now, if they would just shut off that blasted noise!
That, however, didn't appear to be happening. At least the occasional individual he passed in the hallway now didn't even bother to look at him beyond a glance at his uniform. Clark scanned the area surreptitiously, looking for Lois and Jimmy but he didn't see them anywhere. Still, there was a lot of area to search. From the appearance of this place, it had started as a system of caves under the island and had been expanded and extended by the work of men over what must have been years until it was a veritable honeycomb of caverns and hallways cut out of the living rock. Luthor had built himself a hidden fortress, all right, only it wasn't in Europe. He must have foreseen a time when he might need it and prepared well in advance. As Lois had said, Luthor always had a backup plan.
The room where he had seen the dying clone was just ahead. He didn't want to look, but he considered it necessary. It was just as well that he see for himself what the clone-makers were up to here. He paused in the hallway and scanned the room carefully, making sure he paid attention to every detail. There were ten clone cylinders in the room and nine of them held growing clones about the age of the one he had already seen. Two of them looked vaguely familiar, and suddenly he understood. They were much younger copies of Lois and Jimmy. Luthor was cloning his guests! What on Earth had they stumbled across here?
"What do you mean you had to discard one of the specimens?" He hadn't seen anyone when he looked, but from the sound, someone was just entering through another door, and the voice now issuing from the room had the effect of sending a chill of alarm down his back. Luthor's voice was low, falsely calm and quivering with the anger simmering just below the surface.
"I'm sorry, sir." The apprehensive reply was from one of the men he had overheard earlier. "It had developed anomalies. It wasn't usable."
"I trust," Luthor said, still dangerously calm, "that you brought up a backup?"
"Yes, sir, immediately!"
"Very well, Higgins, be certain this one doesn't fail. You *do* understand the consequences if it does, don't you?"
"Excellent. How are the others progressing?"
"The remaining nine are doing well, sir. Here, why don't you see for yourself?"
"Thank you, I will." Luthor's voice brimmed with sarcasm.
Silence for several minutes. Then, suddenly, "Whose sample is this?"
"Why that's -- um -- Miss Davenport's, sir."
"Oh, really?" The anger had vanished and a note of discovery had taken its place. "Well, well, this *is* a day for surprises." There was another pause, then Luthor's voice said, "Carry on, Higgins. And don't fail me again, understand?"
"Yes, sir; perfectly!"
Clark barely had time to float up to the ceiling before Luthor exited into the hallway. The man was smiling but there was a dangerous set to his shoulders. He hurried back the way Clark had just come and Clark watched him with a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. Luthor had been far too interested in Lois's clone for comfort. It was quite possible that he had recognized Kellie Davenport's real identity. It was now more than ever crucial that he find Lois and Jimmy immediately and get them out of here before things really got out of hand.
"I wondered about this place," Lois said. She wrinkled her nose slightly at the scent from the sea bird rookery. "I thought that maybe there were caves in the cliff, but I never imagined how far they went."
Mamba nodded. "The island is full of them, some man-made, some not. Luthor and his wife added to them until there's a whole system of tunnels and caverns down here in the rock."
"We noticed," Jimmy said. "How often is this place used? How long before they find us?"
"Well, we're beyond the power generator room," Mamba said. "Almost no one ever comes here anymore. Of course, they will, eventually. I hope your husband and Superman find us first, Miss Lane."
"So do I," Lois said. "I have no interest in finding out what will happen if Arianna Carlin gets her hands on us."
"She'll kill us," Mamba said, without hesitation. "She can't afford to let you two go, and she told me the only time I tried to get away, that the next time she'd kill me. She never bluffs."
"That's something I wanted to ask," Jimmy said. "Who's in charge here, Luthor or Arianna Carlin?"
"Arianna Luthor," Mamba said. "She's the boss. She engineered Luthor's escape from prison, and set up that whole situation with the wedding and the type B Lois and Luthor clones. She even had Luthor fooled for awhile." He grimaced. "She helped him with the scheme involving the Superman clone and the Type A Luthor clone as well -- the one now in prison on Stryker's Island. If it had worked -- well, you know what would probably have happened." Mamba shuddered. "She brought Luthor to this island to hide out until you, Miss Lane, could be brought here -- or so she said." He smiled a trifle sourly. "Luthor should have known better, but Arianna is very believable."
"I guess that wasn't what she really had in mind," Jimmy said.
"Arianna Carlin would never have handed the man she loved to another woman," Lois interjected, with certainty. "Especially not me."
"Of course not," Mamba said. "I'm not certain what the actual plan was, but it didn't involve bringing you here, Miss Lane. Once she had him here, under her control, he was hers. She promised to help him rebuild his empire if he would re-marry her. Luthor was always a pragmatist, you know. They've been running Caribbean Imports together, ever since, and they're slowly re-amassing the power and control they had with LexCorp. His only restriction is that he's never allowed to leave the island. He's the head of Caribbean Imports, but the people here are loyal to her. He's as much a prisoner as I am. If he escapes -- or if something happens to her -- she has it set up so he'll be exposed, the company destroyed, and he'll be put back in prison. I said Luthor was a pragmatist."
"I know," Lois said.
"Dr. Mamba," Jimmy wasn't going to let the subject drop before he found out everything he wanted to know. "Why the clones? Why is he cloning us?"
"I'll bet it has to do with the companies that work with him, doesn't it?" Lois said.
Mamba nodded. "Yes."
"Let me guess, and you can tell me if I'm wrong. He brings various owners of successful companies here and tries to enlist them into some kind of cooperation scheme. The ones that won't go along with him get replaced with clones that will. Am I right?"
Mamba looked slightly taken aback, but nodded. "More or less."
"Is Asabi on the island?" Lois asked.
Mamba shook his head. "He comes here four or five times a year. He's due in a few days."
"Why am I not surprised," Jimmy muttered.
Mamba gave a bark of humorless laughter. "I was a researcher before I let them drag me into this. Do you know what I'd give to go back to that now?"
"A lot, I'd imagine," Jimmy said. "Maybe if we can take them down, you can."
"If we get out alive," Mamba said, "I'm leaving the country. I'm going to settle down in some obscure South American village, change my name and dedicate my life to treating the underprivileged kids, or something."
"I'd say it's better than this," Jimmy said. "Are they *ever* going to shut off that alarm?"
As he spoke, the tooth-grating sound went quiet. Silence descended like a blanket, and a squawk from one of the sea birds nearly made Lois jump. The vibration of the power generator seemed louder in the silence.
"Lois." The amplified voice echoing through the cavern made her skin crawl. "Lois, I know you're here. The exits have been blocked off. You can't get away."
"Luthor," Jimmy whispered.
"Hiding won't do any good," Luthor's voice continued. "We'll find you. You might as well come out now."
"They'll have to hunt for us," Lois said. "That will take time. Besides, Superman will be looking for us -- if he isn't already. We've got to hold out as long as we can."
"Lois," Luthor's voice continued, "be reasonable. If you come out now, I'll spare your friend's life, along with yours. Isn't that better than the alternative?"
"Not a chance," Jimmy said, in a whisper.
"He lies too easily," Lois said. "The trouble with his promises is that they're always subject to his convenience."
Mamba gulped, but nodded. "I hope Superman hurries."
Lois bit her lip. "Me, too." She didn't like being the hunted, although she had been exactly that more than once. It was frustrating to feel helpless when she was used to being proactive in any situation. Waiting for Clark to come and help them went against the grain. Besides, if Mamba was right about Lex having a piece of Kryptonite, Clark could be walking -- or flying -- directly into a trap. But, was there anything that she could do to shift the odds, even a little?
Jimmy had apparently been thinking along similar lines. Not long ago, she wouldn't have been impressed but in the last few days she had developed a healthy respect for Jimmy's intelligence and capability. Now he said, "Doctor Mamba, didn't I hear that guy say they're having trouble with their power generator?"
The older man nodded. "Yes. We've been having problems with it ever since the lightning strike the other night."
"You mean lightning hit the generator? I'm surprised it's running at all!"
"No, but the strike was a near miss. It did a lot of damage."
"I can believe that," Jimmy said.
"We've had several short-term power outages. A repair crew is due tomorrow morning."
"In other words," Jimmy said, "if the power was to go out again, nobody would think it was unusual."
"Well, no. But how are you going to manage it?"
Jimmy smiled grimly. "Help me get to the computer in the generator room, and give me five minutes, and I'll guarantee they'll have more trouble with it than they can handle."
Mamba looked thoughtful. "There's a man who monitors the generator at night. He checks the readings every fifteen minutes. He was on his rounds when we came through."
"So there's only one?"
"I think so. There might be a guard there, now, with this search for us going on, though."
"The only way to find out is to go see," Lois said. "Maybe they haven't had time to get a guard here yet."
Mamba swallowed convulsively and nodded. The man was rightfully afraid, but she had to give him credit for courage. Come to think of it, what he had done when he had brought them CJ had shown a fair amount of courage, as well as a trace of ethics. Of course, he knew very well what Lex's promises were worth -- and his gratitude. If Lex or Arianna got their hands on him, he was dead, anyway. She concluded they could count on him for anything that didn't involve much physical courage.
Well, she and Jimmy could take care of that part. "Come on," she said, "the longer we wait, the more likely we are to get caught."
Clark started when he heard the loudspeaker echoing through the hallways. Luthor had decided Lois was in here, all right. He had to find her first; that was all there was to it. He moved fast whenever there was no one to observe him, but the corners and sharp turns in the passages made it all but impossible to move too quickly to be seen, so he held himself to human speed whenever there were observers -- and it seemed that personnel were emerging from rooms everywhere he looked.
Lois's heartbeat was somewhere to the southwest and above him, and for a while he wondered if she and Jimmy had somehow gotten out of the tunnels, but he finally concluded they were still down here, somewhere. Still, there seemed to be countless tunnels and branching hallways. He kept moving in the general direction of her heartbeat, holding himself to a fast walk even though every instinct screamed for him to move faster.
He reached an intersection where eight hallways branched like the spokes of a wheel and, after a moment of indecision, chose the one that seemed to lead most nearly in her direction. Within minutes the tunnel turned at right angles and then turned back again and had been crossed several times by other tunnels. What had been in the minds of the people who had designed this maze, he wondered, briefly. He kept himself headed in her general direction, trying not to attract attention. If Luthor realized Superman was here, he had several other bargaining chips in his arsenal. The other guests up at the mansion were unaware of what was transpiring, but he was sure neither Luthor nor Arianna would hesitate for an instant to use them against him. For a few moments, he considered burrowing through the rock to reach Lois, but what if it caused the tunnels to collapse? He couldn't risk the lives of perhaps over a hundred people down here.
And, all at once, the lights went out. The low hum of the generator died.
"Can you get it?" Lois asked Jimmy in a whisper. The young man was studying a monitor full of gibberish, from her point of view, but for a computer wizard like Jimmy it was probably completely understandable.
Jimmy didn't answer. His fingers were now flying over the keyboard, changing settings and doing who knew what else, she thought. His forehead was creased in a frown of concentration, and he obviously either hadn't heard her, or perhaps couldn't spare the attention to reply. Maybe it would be better not to bother him, she decided. She didn't like it a bit when anyone pestered her while she was in the middle of writing a story, with the notable exception of Clark. Jimmy was an artist when it came to a computer and could be trusted to do a good job without someone leaning over his shoulder.
She moved over to Isaac Mamba, who was peering out the door. "Anyone?"
"Not yet. How much longer, Miss Lane?"
"Not long. Jimmy's very efficient."
"He's due in two minutes."
"Maybe he's taking a nap," Lois said, hopefully.
"Not now," Mamba said. "He's got to keep a constant eye on everything until they can make the permanent repairs. He's just doing his rounds, and he'll be here on time."
"Done," Jimmy said, suddenly. "Let's get out of here."
They retreated toward their former hiding place. Lois glanced at the overhead lights. "I don't see any difference."
"Just wait," Jimmy said. "I put a time delay on it."
"What did you do?"
"You'll see." He grinned suddenly, and for a second he looked much like the younger Jimmy she had known when he first came to the Planet, always ripe for a little harmless mischief. "It should throw a real wrench into their works."
"Why do I think you're enjoying this?" Lois asked.
Jimmy chuckled. "Because I am. I never got a chance to get my own back against Luthor, after he blew up the Planet. He tried to ruin my life and the lives of my friends. Now's my chance to pay him back a little."
Lois concealed her surprise. She had never realized before the depth of Jimmy's feelings over Lex's treachery back then -- but why shouldn't he have been angry? Lex used people as if they were his pawns to push around a chessboard. He had no feeling for others, except in the sense of how they could be used to further his ends. In a way, it was ironic that his own ex-wife, whom he had probably used in a similar way in the beginning, had finally outmaneuvered him. They were well suited for each other, she thought. Arianna was as much of a sociopath as her husband. Evidently, she had decided that if she couldn't have his love, she would settle for tying him to her any way she could. It must make for an interesting married life, she decided, almost whimsically.
Lois, too, had been hurt back then, especially when she discovered how Lex had deceived her, but why should she have assumed she was the only victim? She had been only the latest of many. The fact that Clark, Perry, Jimmy and Jack had banded together and saved her from the biggest mistake of her life was something she would never forget, but Lex had hurt them, too. Jimmy had every right to enjoy his chance to throw a spanner in Lex's works.
They settled into the place they had chosen in one of the natural caves not far from the sea bird rookery and the holes in the cliff face. The lights were dim here, only reflections from the fluorescent bulbs in the corridor. The three of them huddled together in a dark corner, behind irregular rock formations and tumbled boulders where they could see the entrance and yet not be seen. Jimmy checked the dimly glowing face of his watch. "Three...two...one...."
On his whispered "Zero," the lights were extinguished. Complete darkness crashed down.
Clark came to a dead stop, listening to Lois's heartbeat. She was speaking softly, and, to his surprise, she sounded pleased. "Good work, Jim. That should slow them up."
Ah, that explained it. Lois and Jimmy weren't just sitting around waiting for him to rescue them, then. Trust the pair of them to make a few moves to distract and hamper the enemy.
He frowned suddenly. He was hearing three heartbeats, not two. Who would be with them? Whoever it was, he or she was right there beside them.
The emergency generator came on at that point, and a dim, yellowish light filtered through the corridors. He could hear the sounds of various pieces of electrical equipment taking up their tasks once more. A man pushed by him, hurrying in the same direction Clark was headed. Possibly part of the repair crew, he decided.
With a subsonic squeal that made Clark wince, the laboring main generator came grudgingly back on line. The fluorescent lights flickered into being and the emergency lights died. Clark frowned, continuing to make his way toward Lois and Jimmy and the unknown third party. What had happened? It wasn't like Jimmy to fail so easily.
The situation lasted all of forty seconds and the generator went off once more. He heard the dying whine of the turbines and the corridor was plunged into darkness a second time.
In spite of the seriousness of the situation, Clark found himself chuckling at the inventiveness of his young friend. He had to hand it to Jimmy. The boy -- no, he corrected himself, he was going to have to change his thinking about Jimmy. The young man he had become deserved more respect than that. Jimmy had come up with a way of casting the whole underground complex into confusion. Take that, Luthor! he thought. You're not the only one around here with bright ideas!
The emergency lights flickered to life as Clark continued to move forward. More people, some wearing white coveralls, pushed past him, and he followed. They must know where the generator room was located, and Lois and Jimmy were in the same area. It made sense to follow them.
The loudspeaker was booming again, Luthor was commanding his Security people to spread out and search for Kellie Davenport. Evidently, he hadn't connected the power troubles with Lois and Jimmy yet -- but then, Clark thought, why should he? How could he know *who* her companion was? Jimmy didn't really look much like Jimmy Olsen as he had been, especially with his new hairdo, clothing and manner. Luthor probably assumed he was another experienced Planet reporter. Besides, Luthor had never known about Jimmy's expertise on the subject of computers....
The generator ground into reluctant life once more, and the vibration rose quickly to a wail of agony. The thing was trying to come up to normal speed much too quickly, and it wasn't doing the damaged mechanism any good at all. The fluorescent lights came on and the backup lighting died once more.
The mistreated generator couldn't keep this up for long, he thought, though what else might be in Jimmy's arsenal of tricks he couldn't imagine.
With a squeal of almost human pain, the generator quit again. This time, the emergency lights were slower to come back. Around him in the dimness, he could hear the gabble of the frustrated men and women who were attempting to make their way to the demon-ridden generator. Someone was cursing monotonously but imaginatively, condemning the tunnels, the generator, and the vagaries of Murphy's Law all in one comprehensive monologue.
"Give it five minutes," a voice said cynically in his ear. "It'll be back."
He was right. The generator started up with a pained groan, as if the load was much too much for it to bear. The lights began to flicker, but the mechanism was definitely on its last legs. The groan turned into a dying gasp and the overburdened turbines quit for the last time.
Well, that was the end of the generator. Judging from the sounds, there was no chance of it recovering again. And, if his memory was correct -- which it was -- the backup generator had a time limit of four hours. That ought to be more than just a distraction for Lex Luthor. Briefly, he wondered if Jimmy had any more tricks up his sleeve.
But, the next contribution wasn't something Jimmy could possibly -- at least to Clark's knowledge -- have had anything to do with. Replacing the death rattle of the generator, was another sound. It was the thin, eerie cry of the fire alarm.
For a moment, Clark thought Jimmy had overplayed his hand. Could the generator have caught fire? Then, he wondered why anyone would worry about fire here, anyhow. The tunnels were made of stone. How far could a fire really go in such circumstances?
A whiff of smoke, laden with the scent of chemicals, made the matter clear. The ventilation system circulated the air down here. If there hadn't been one, the atmosphere deep in the tunnels would have become stuffy and stale in short order. A chemical fire in one of the labs could threaten the rest of the complex without ever spreading from its original location.
Would Luthor have started a fire to flush Lois out of her hiding place? He considered that briefly and concluded that it wasn't likely. Luthor might have been determined to capture Lois, but he wouldn't sacrifice his cloning project to do so when there were other, less costly methods of accomplishing the same object. A fire must have started in one of the labs for some unknown reason, and was now menacing everyone in the tunnels.
This was going to be a lot worse than even he had anticipated. He couldn't let people die in a chemical fire, but Lois and Jimmy came first. He had to get to them quickly, take them out of here, and then see what he could do to put out the fire. Exposing his presence to Luthor was the last on his list of things to do, but if it was necessary, he would. With any luck, it wouldn't *be* necessary.
With the sound of the alarm, people began to retrace their steps. Clark slowly but surely pressed against the tide, and when fleeing people discovered that trying to push him aside was almost as effective as pushing on a stone wall, they squeezed past him as best they could and fled back toward the entrance. Clark kept close to the wall and forced his way forward, step by step.
Lois's heartbeat had speeded up a little, but it hadn't changed position much. If anything, it had retreated slightly. Down here in the tunnels, it was easy to lose his sense of direction, but he believed she was still southwest of him and perhaps two hundred feet or so higher.
There was a faint haze of smoke in the air, now. He could see it with his enhanced vision. It wasn't heavy yet, but unless the fire burned up its fuel, it could become thick enough to seriously threaten the lives of everyone in the tunnels. Besides, who knew what kinds of chemicals were burning? The smoke was probably toxic to human lungs, and of course, there was always the possibility of an explosion.
The repair personnel and the Security people were mostly past by now. Clark speeded up considerably, slowing only when he heard approaching footsteps. A single individual pounded toward him and went past, and then he could hear no more persons coming in his direction. He shifted into a run. He had to moderate his speed somewhat because of turns and intersecting tunnels, but he was still moving at least twice as fast as a human man could run.
A tunnel sloped upward ahead of him and he half-flew up the incline. At the top, another shorter tunnel ended in a room labeled "Authorized Personnel Only". Lois's heartbeat was some distance beyond that.
He went through the room like a bullet, noting peripherally that there were several computers positioned around the room, and out the other side. Lois was close, now.
A tunnel extended a short way beyond the room, and there, the previously man-carved walls became rough, natural stone. He could hear the cries of disturbed sea birds and the distinctive sounds of the surf, and suddenly he knew where he was. The sea bird rookery was just beyond, somewhere past the occupied portions of the tunnels. He had noticed and never guessed the meaning of the birds flying in and out of the holes in the cliff side.
"Lois?" he called. "It's Superman!" He stepped through an uneven gap in the stone wall into a rough cavern carved by the hand of Mother Nature in the stone, and knew Lois was here. He could hear her heartbeat and the heartbeats of two other persons as well, coming from the shadows behind a screen of tumbled boulders.
She stepped out from behind them as the echoes of his voice died.
"Well," she said. "It took you long enough. What's happening out there, anyway?" She glanced over her shoulder. "Come on out, it's really him."
From behind the boulders, two more persons appeared. One, of course, was Jimmy, grinning widely. The other was Isaac Mamba, looking very apprehensive.
Clark cocked his head at Lois. "I suppose there's a good explanation for this, Ms. Lane," he said. "I'd like to hear it later, but right now I need to get the three of you out of here. There's a chemical fire in one of the labs."
Jimmy Olsen had to admit Superman looked just as impressive in one of the Security uniforms as he did in his bright red and blue suit and he was very glad the Kryptonian had shown up at last. He'd been starting to wonder if they'd gotten themselves trapped in this place with no way out and he'd never been so relieved to see someone in his life.
The day Jimmy had realized who the superhero really was, he'd first been hurt, and then awed that the Man of Steel preferred to live the life of an ordinary man, and finally he had understood. Clark hid his incredible powers behind a pair of glasses and a smart tailored suit, when he could have had and been anything he wanted as Superman. Evidently, he valued his privacy and the ability to fit in as much as he could far more than the hero worship of billions. He had a wife he loved, a job he enjoyed, and two beautiful children. Why would any man want to throw those things away in favor of fame? There was a time that Jimmy might not have believed that, but his one encounter with "fame" a couple of years ago had brought him a more thorough comprehension than all the verbal explanations ever could. He had vowed that day never to tell anyone Clark's secret, and he never had. There were times when he wondered if Perry White knew, but he couldn't ask and his editor never admitted it if he did.
Looking at Clark now, if he hadn't known, he wouldn't have seen the resemblance. Superman was glancing around, no doubt using his x-ray vision or something to locate the best way to get them out. He nodded slightly, then stepped forward, holding out his arms. "Ms. Lane, you first. I'm going to take you out through the birds' caves. If I set you on the beach, you should be all right while I put out the fire."
Lois moved easily forward and Superman scooped her up. With a gust of chemical-scented air, he was gone. Jimmy and Mamba looked at each other in silence.
Another gust of air brought with it a stronger scent of the rookery. Superman was back, and he held out his arms to both of them. "Each of you put an arm over my neck," he said, briefly. "I'll hold you around the waist. Don't worry. I won't drop you."
Jimmy obeyed at once, and after an instant's hesitation, Mamba copied him. Jimmy felt Superman grasp him around the waist, then his feet left the floor and there was a sensation of rushing air. He'd only flown with Superman a couple of times, but it was a breath-taking sensation for a very few seconds. They burst from the hole in the cliff wall, nearly upsetting one of the birds, which gave an indignant squawk, and then Superman was setting them down on the sand as lightly as a feather.
The superhero glanced at Lois. "Don't go anywhere near the mansion," he said. "Luthor knows who you are, as I'm sure you know. I've got to put out the fire before people are killed, then we'll leave and bring in the police. In the meantime, stay here, and stay out of sight."
"Superman!" Jimmy spoke up quickly. "I think I might know where to start. When Lois and I came in, we hid in a lab near the boathouse entrance. There was a coffee pot on a hot plate that someone forgot to turn off."
Superman nodded. "Thanks, Jim. I'll check there, first."
Lois stepped forward and rested a hand on his arm. "Be careful, Superman. Luthor has a piece of Kryptonite."
His expression softened and he nodded. "I will." In a flash, he was gone.
Lois stood for a moment feeling as if she was still catching up with what had happened. Clark was off to put out the chemical fire before it killed someone, and Lex Luthor and by now no doubt, his wife, were looking for her, as well as Jimmy and probably Mamba. Common sense would dictate that she and the other two should stay out of sight, but her instincts rebelled. Clark could very well be walking into a trap. After all, Lex knew that when Lois was around, her husband was probably around somewhere, and Superman was almost certainly nearby as well. It was only a small consolation that the only Luthor who had known Clark and Superman were one and the same was the clone who had died in a collapsing tunnel. The temptation to go after him was almost overwhelming.
"Do you think he'll be all right?" Jimmy asked, quietly.
"I hope so, Jim." Lois sank down onto a dried hunk of driftwood that was half buried in the sand. Sitting idle wasn't in her nature, though she knew it was the wisest course. As long as they stayed here, Clark wouldn't have to split his attention by worrying about their safety as well as the fire, but she didn't have to like it.
Mamba dropped down on one of the large, granite boulders that lay at the foot of the cliff. "What time is it?"
Jimmy glanced at his watch. "Five-twenty. Man, it seems like hours ago that we started this. The sun will be coming up in a little while."
Lois bit her fingernail. Staying here in safety while her husband was saving the lives of Lex's employees and risking his own went against the grain, but going up there made no sense. There was really nothing she could --
The thought was broken off before she ever completed it. She had been watching the ocean while she argued with herself, and now she realized that she was seeing something odd.
Against the faintly luminous water, there were five low, dark shapes bobbing up and down on the surface. Aware how sound carried over water, she caught Jimmy's sleeve and pulled his ear down to hers. "Jim -- look! Boats!"
Jimmy turned. For a long second, he squinted out over the water. "You're right! Someone's landing on the island."
Mamba looked in the direction they were both staring. "What?" His voice was equally low. "What is it?"
"Boats," Jimmy whispered. "Somebody's trying to sneak onto Luthor's island. Is he expecting anyone?"
Mamba shook his head. His face was a pale oval in the dimness of pre-dawn. "Not to my knowledge."
"Superman said he thinks there's another group here," Lois said, slowly.
"Yeah," Jimmy agreed. "He wasn't able to tell who they are. They could be police, or another criminal group."
"Either way, I don't want to let them catch us," Lois said. "They have no way of knowing which side we're on." She got to her feet. "Come on. Let's get out of here, fast."
"How?" Mamba asked.
He had a point. Facing the sea, the cliff was behind them, the water in front of them and also to their left. To the right, the beach slowly broadened and the towering cliff gradually descended until it vanished into the landscaped area of Lex's estate. The thick stand of pines that divided the manicured grounds from the beach began there, but to reach that point they would have to pass directly in front of the approaching landing craft.
Lois hesitated, considering their options. "The cliffs are white stone," she said, finally, "the sand is white, and we're all wearing white lab coats. With white on white, they may not see us. Keep down, and as close to the cliffs as you can, and follow me. And try not to make any noise."
Clark re-entered the underground complex through the holes in the cliff and tuned his hearing to the voices of the fleeing people. The smell of burning chemicals was strong in his nostrils and he could hear the men and women coughing and choking. Jimmy had said there was a lab close to the boathouse entrance where he had seen a possible cause for the fire, so that must be to the north.
Orienting himself, he flew swiftly through the tunnels, retracing his way as well as he could, always bearing north. The smoke grew denser as he went, and he concluded he was headed in the right direction.
The voices also grew louder, and with it the coughing. People were trying desperately to exit the underground complex and the exit only allowed the passage of a small number of persons at one time. Clark hesitated for a microsecond, irresolute. His instinct was to get the people out by any means possible, but his common sense told him that nothing he could do directly would be effective. If he tried to burrow a tunnel for them, he could very well cause the passages to collapse and possibly kill more persons than the fire. No, the best approach was to find the source of the fumes and extinguish it.
Heeding Lois's warning, he constantly scanned the corridors ahead of him, looking for a trap, but it seemed that so far, at least, no one had considered the idea that Superman might be here. He hoped Luthor wouldn't think of it but knew that it wasn't likely. Lex Luthor knew that wherever Lois was, Clark Kent and Superman were almost certainly nearby. Therefore, the chances were that the man would be ready if Clark tried to get near him, so, the best thing to do was to stay away from Luthor. It would be more effective to simply keep track of him and Arianna and let the police take care of them.
The fire control system was in action, he realized. He could hear the muted hiss of chemical foam as he got closer to the area of the fire, but it seemed to be inadequate to the job for the flames were crackling vigorously in his ears, almost drowning out the sound from the extinguishers. A scan through the walls showed him the situation and he paused for a long second to consider his tactics.
Dousing a fire was nothing new for Superman, but he didn't wish to be detected. Since the automatic fire extinguishers were already in action, the best thing he could do was to give them a little assist. The smoke and flames could damage his disguise, so he removed the coat and slacks of the uniform, leaving on only the snug, black clothing he had worn when he invaded the underground complex. Thus prepared, he opened the door, slipped within and closed it instantly. With a burst of heat vision, he sealed the vents to the room, cutting off the flow of oxygen, and watched the fire begin to die. No one would find any evidence of super assistance. The melted vents could easily have been caused by the fire, itself. He waited until the last flames had flickered out, then exited the room and resumed his outer clothing.
The fire alarm continued to shrill for several minutes while Clark put distance between himself and the laboratory. He didn't wish to be even associated with the event in anyone's mind. There was an elevator at the end of the hallway -- almost certainly the way Lois and Jimmy had entered through the boathouse, and he checked it quickly with x-ray vision. It was empty.
The fire alarm shut off, leaving an echoing silence. Clark glanced at his uniform. The man whom he had mugged for the clothing was almost certainly all right. The fumes from the chemical fire had been strong, but he'd put it out before it could do much more than frighten the people down here. He'd tied his victim so that he could eventually work his way free, and left the storeroom door unlocked -- which meant that before long, Luthor was going to be informed that there was a false Security guard running around on his island.
He rang for the elevator. A Security guard exiting through the boathouse wasn't likely to elicit much comment, considering the current situation. He wanted to take a last quick look around before they returned to the mainland, and try to obtain a little more evidence. The photos Bernard Klein had handed him had shown, among other things, the cloning cylinders, but evidently, their mystery man had been interrupted before he had been able to gather more definitive evidence. And, of course, he wanted to check on Lois and the others. Previous experience with his wife's ability to attract trouble tended to make him a bit paranoid on the subject.
Keeping close to the cliff wall and crouching low, Lois, Jimmy and Mamba made their way toward the stand of pines. By now, all but the brightest stars had disappeared. The sky overhead had lightened slightly, and had acquired a faint pinkish hue, but that was all to the good, Lois thought. The men on the approaching boats would be looking into a sunrise, which meant that anything in the shadow of the cliff would be all but invisible to them. Nevertheless, when they reached the line of trees and put a screen of branches between themselves and the invaders Lois breathed a sigh of relief. It was quite possible that they had nothing to fear from the new arrivals. If they were law enforcement, all would be well, and she, Clark and Jimmy would have the exclusive story, but it was just as likely that they belonged to a rival of Lex and Arianna, in which case she, Jimmy and Mamba were caught between two enemies. Until they found out for sure, they would have to stay out of the way of both.
Mamba was panting heavily, and she stopped for a minute to allow him time to catch his breath. The older man glanced fearfully over his shoulder at the men, dressed uniformly in dark jumpsuits, who were now pulling their inflatable crafts up onto the sand. They were all wearing gun belts and what looked like automatic weapons were slung from their shoulders, Lois saw. As she watched, one of the men from the nearest craft reached back into it and began passing more weapons to his companions.
"Come on!" she whispered. "Let's get out of here before they see us!"
They moved back into the trees as quietly as they could. The island birds were filling the air with their morning serenades, and the noise helped to cover their retreat. Lois cut through the stand of trees lengthwise, in the direction of the boathouse. It allowed them to stay under cover for the greatest amount of time. They didn't dare show their faces on the main lawn of the mansion. She didn't need super powers to hear the voices of over a hundred excited persons all talking at once. Most of the staff must have exited the underground complex through the entrance in the gardens that Mamba had mentioned.
When she was sure the three of them had cleared the area of the beach where the men had landed, she stopped and motioned for her companions to crouch down in the underbrush. Their best chance of being unobserved lay in being perfectly still and quiet until they were sure the unknown forces had passed by. Belatedly, Lois pulled off the white coat and sat on it. Black clothing was much less likely to be noticed in the dimness that surrounded them among the plant growth. Jimmy and Mamba did the same. The scientist was wearing dark clothing under the coat, for which Lois was thankful. The three of them sat in silence, breathing as quietly as they could, and Lois surreptitiously crossed her fingers.
They were going to have to leave the shelter of the trees to reach the boathouse, but Lois planned on going around the perimeter of the island and thereby avoiding both Lex's minions and the invaders. The yacht, as well as various other craft, was docked there. She had no idea how to sail a yacht, but she was perfectly competent when it came to handling a motorboat and so was Jimmy. If they could get away from the island, Clark would find them and they would be safe. She was quite sure her husband would get the final details of the story, as well as the story of the invasion of Crescent Island. As much as Mad Dog Lane might wish to be in the middle of the action, she knew that she couldn't be this time. Not only did she have two children who were waiting for their mother to come home, she was responsible for the safety of both Jimmy and Mamba. Getting them out of here intact had to be her first priority.
A soft crackling of brush alerted her. She saw one of the invaders for an instant through the trees, moving with the skill of a trained commando. He carried a pistol in one hand, the two long weapons were slung on his back and his face was coated with some black substance: camouflage, she thought. He disappeared through the underbrush and trees, and there was quiet again.
Lois let out her breath. That was too close, for certain. As soon as she was positive that all the men had passed by, she was getting her little party out of here. The faster they got away from Crescent Island altogether the better off they would all be.
Clark exited the underground complex by way of the elevator. When the door opened he found himself in an empty room, but, glancing around with his x-ray vision, he located the door and emerged out into the main body of the boathouse.
It was dark, but that was no barrier to him. A faint, reflected glow from the water told him that the sky outside was beginning to lighten. Dawn wasn't far away. He'd better get out of here, finish his business and take Lois, Jimmy and Mamba away from the island.
With what he intended to pick up from the mansion, they would probably have enough evidence to raise some questions in the eyes of the authorities. Tucked into Chef Raoul's luggage, wrapped carefully in plastic, was a glass that had been handled by Alejandro de Los Rios. Luthor's fingerprints ought to convince the authorities that they should check on the reclusive Mr. de Los Rios, at the very least. But first, he had to get out of the boathouse.
He strode to the door, twisted the bolt and pushed it open. One of the guards was standing in front of him when he emerged, restraining a large, German shepherd that growled at Clark, low in his throat. Clark hoped the dog wouldn't attempt to bite him, as it wouldn't do the animal's teeth any good. He closed the door firmly.
"Man, I'm glad to get out of there," he remarked to the guard. "There's a fire in one of the labs."
"Oh." The guard glanced at the dog. "Quiet, Nero!"
The dog ceased its rumbling and the guard turned back to Clark. "I was wondering what was going on. Do they need help?"
Clark shook his head. "Nah, the fire control system pretty much had it put out by the time I left. The place is just full of smoke." He turned his head and coughed realistically. "What a stink!"
The guard laughed. "I can smell it on you."
"I'll bet," Clark said. "I'd better get over there with the others and find out what I'm supposed to do next. See you." He started up the pier, coughing a few more times for effect.
As soon as he was out of sight of the man, however, he lifted off at a speed that no human eye could follow. In his room, seconds later, he retrieved the glass and his disguise, and hurried out of the mansion once more in the persona of Raoul Desrosiers.
Why he did that he didn't know exactly, except to say that it was a hunch. Chef Raoul wasn't under suspicion, at least yet. If Luthor was looking for Superman, he was less likely to pay much attention to the assistant chef. After all, Luthor and Arianna knew that Raoul was an excellent cook, and as far as they were aware, Superman didn't even have to eat, much less know how to cook.
As he stepped from the building, he heard the sound of weapons fire, and a chorus of screams. Men were emerging from behind the garden hedge, spreading out with military precision. Apparently, they had approached through the stand of pines, he thought, as he scanned them with his distance vision. One man appeared to be in command, and Clark zeroed in on him, looking for some kind of identification. A patch on his shoulder was the giveaway. The guy was with Interpol. A second man had a shoulder patch indicating he was FBI. He'd suspected something of the sort, but hadn't been sure. It looked as if the international police, in concert with several US law enforcement agencies, had decided that they had enough on Alejandro de Los Rios to raid his private estate. He'd known that an investigation of Caribbean Imports was supposedly in the works, but they hadn't been able to rely on that when he and Lois were the targets.
The crowd of employees who had exited from the tunnels was in custody, and more men were moving toward the mansion, spreading out around it to prevent any escapes. Luthor's guests were definitely in for the shock of their lives, he thought. Listening, he could hear the heartbeats of three other groups converging on the mansion from different directions, some close, some farther away. They must have landed in force, he thought. Still, he wasn't about to let them get hold of him. He'd better find Lois, Jimmy and Mamba and get them out of here. Then he could come back and get the rest of the story.
"Down this way," Lois said. She looked over her shoulder, trying to tell how visible they might be from the house. She could see the mansion, but there was a screen of shrubs and branches between them and the building. Through it, she could dimly see figures moving around on the lawn, and heard, for an instant, a distant chorus of screams and cries of distress and the harsh, though unintelligible shouts of male voices.
The sky to the east was brilliant with the colors of sunrise. This batch, whoever they were, must have planned to strike at dawn, when any sane persons could be expected to still be in bed. If it hadn't been for Jimmy's and her own activity -- and a pair of careless Security men -- their plan would have gone flawlessly.
She slid down the small incline to the narrow beach that surrounded this part of the island. Once below the bluff, they would pretty much figure the invaders wouldn't see them until they spread out and started scouring the island for stragglers. Lois intended for the three of them to be well on the way to the mainland by that time. Staying low and taking advantage of every piece of brush or low-growing shrub, she led them north along the island's perimeter.
The narrow arm of land that extended like a finger into the sea was rocky and thick with straggly bushes and the occasional spindly tree that had somehow taken root in the sandy ground. Lois took a chance and cut directly across it, trusting to the presence of the vegetation to shield them from the view of observers. With every step, she expected to hear a shout of discovery from one of Lex's men, or one of the invaders, but there was nothing except the morning birdcalls, and the faint and distant sound of voices. Once, a burst of automatic fire cut through the air, harsh and out of place, but nothing else disturbed the deceptively placid scene. Still, when she slid down the other side of the miniature peninsula, followed by her two companions, she blew out her breath forcibly in relief.
Ahead of them, a narrow pier extended out from the shore; she'd forgotten about this one. It was the pier that Clark had informed her was for the use of the employees only -- not the fancier and more picturesque one designated for the owner and his guests. Were there guards here, too? If they'd spotted the invasion force, they might have run. Of course, they might have taken off in the available boats, she reminded herself. Still, it was a shot. She turned to her companions.
"If we can pick up a boat here, we can get off the island. I'm going to --"
"Lois --" Jimmy put a hand on her arm. "Wait a minute. They've probably been told to look for you. They may not be looking for me, at least yet. Besides, they might not know who I am. Let me go up there. You and Dr. Mamba stay here and back me up if I need it."
"Jimmy, you promised to do what Clark and I told you. I'm the one in charge."
"I know that," Jimmy said, patiently. "And if you insist on it, you can go first. I just think I stand a little better chance of being able to do this, safely." He looked at her steadily. "Lois, you and Clark have two little kids to take care of. I'm just me. I don't have anyone who depends on me. I promise I'll be careful. Really."
Lois swallowed. He was right, but it went against the grain. He was not only her responsibility; he was her friend and Clark's. Still, he probably wasn't really in that much danger. At the worst, if any guards were there, they'd probably just stop him.
"Let me do this, Lois," Jimmy said, seeing her hesitation. "Clark won't like it if you get yourself hurt, and your kids need you in one piece, too. Heck, *I* won't like it if you get hurt."
Lois found herself trying to suppress a laugh. "You sure know how to play the guilt card, Olsen."
"I learned from the best," Jimmy said.
"All right," Lois said, reluctantly. "But the second I think you're in trouble, I'm coming after you; understand?"
"Sure," Jimmy said. "I'm going to try to find a boat. If I run into any guards, maybe I can scare them by telling them about those guys. You and Dr. Mamba stay here and keep out of sight."
Before she was able to have second thoughts, he slipped away from them, crouched low and hugging the bluff. Lois peered around the screen of low bushes to follow his progress.
He had a matter of perhaps a hundred feet to cross before he got to the pier, but he seemed to move with incredible slowness, and at the same time, he was across the distance too fast. Lois held her breath. From her angle, she could see only the portion of the wooden structure nearest the shore. Several large rocks and a scruffy line of tall grasslike stalks blocked her view of the ocean and the end of the pier, itself. If there were any boats, she couldn't see them, but they might be there.
Jimmy glanced around, and then to her horror, he stood up. "Hey!" She heard his voice, as he called softly to someone out of her range of vision.
A man dressed in dirty jeans, with a windbreaker covering his upper body, came into view. Jimmy waved at him. "Hey!" he repeated.
"Who are you?" the man asked, sounding slightly suspicious.
"I'm Andy Filberg, one of the guests," Jimmy said. "What the devil's going on? There's a bunch of guys in black, with guns, swarming all over de Los Rios's grounds, rounding up everybody. They just came out of the trees and started waving guns and shouting. I barely got away."
"What're you talking about?" the man asked, looking more wary than ever.
"Take a look," Jimmy said. He pointed back toward the mansion. As he spoke, there was another burst of automatic fire, then the distant pop-pop-pop of someone firing a hand weapon. "They're shooting!"
"What th --" The man hurried up the boards, craning his neck in a vain effort to see what was happening.
There were more echoes of gunshots, and the guard, or whatever he was, seemed to make up his mind. He turned and half-ran down the pier. His footsteps still pounded hollowly on the boards after he had disappeared from sight. A moment later, Lois heard the sound of an outboard motor as a motorboat peeled away from the pier. So much for Lex's faithful servants, she thought with some irony.
Jimmy held up his hand in a warning gesture and scrambled up the bank. He paused, looking around, and then hurried down the pier in the direction the other man had gone.
"Where's he going?" Mamba whispered.
Lois gestured for silence. After several seconds, Jimmy reappeared and beckoned to them.
"Let's go," Lois said, deliberately keeping her voice down. The way sound carried around here, there was no point in advertising their presence. She and Mamba hurried forward and with Jimmy's help, scrambled up the bank.
"There's a sailboat, a couple of outboards and a cabin cruiser here," Jimmy told her, waving his hand toward the end of the pier. "We can take our pick, but I don't think we should wait very long."
"What about Superman?" Mamba asked.
"He'll figure out what we did and find us," Lois said. "He'll get Clark out, too, but we need to get out of here."
The cabin cruiser wasn't as fancy a craft as the one that had brought them to the island, but it would do, Lois thought. They started down the pier toward the big motorboat at a fast trot. From somewhere behind them, they heard a shout. They ran.
"Can you pilot one of these things?" Jimmy panted.
Lois nodded in the affirmative. "I had to learn for an undercover operation a few years ago. Get in; hurry!"
Jimmy scrambled onboard and reached out to help first Mamba and then Lois onto the deck. She immediately jumped down into the cabin and seated herself in front of the controls. "Half a tank. I guess it'll have to do. Sit down, both of you. We're getting out of here."
Raoul Desrosiers ducked quickly into the mansion, intending to exit by way of the roof, but he realized almost at once that he couldn't leave yet. The inhabitants and guests were in a panic, and it was apparent that someone was bound to get hurt if no one took charge. Most of these people were probably completely unaware of their employers' criminal enterprise; Luthor and Arianna almost certainly wouldn't share information about their real business with most of the staff, and the guests were certainly in the dark about the whole thing. Reluctantly, he postponed his intention of going after Lois. He was needed here more urgently. His wife was certainly competent to handle things at her end right now. He subdued the instinctive worry that tried to insinuate itself into his thoughts and concentrated on the problem at hand.
Mrs. Brown was standing at the head of the stairs, her eyes wide with terror. Clark hurried up the steps to her.
"Madame, the situation is not as it seems. They are law enforcement."
She didn't seem to hear him. Clark touched her arm gently. "Madame, come into the sitting room. It would be best if you try to stay calm. These people will not harm us."
Behind her, one of the maids gasped, "Why are they here?"
He glanced at her nametag. "I don't know, Marie, but if we keep calm and cooperate, I am certain we will be all right."
The presence of a leader appeared to calm the group. One of the male servants seemed to gather his wits and, between them, they began to herd the milling people toward the sitting room. It took much longer than he liked to bring some kind of order and calm to the group of essentially innocent bystanders caught in the middle of a police operation, and he considered several times dropping his disguise, but concluded that it was better not to confuse people more thoroughly than they already were.
Interestingly, there was no sign of Rene, and that bothered him. He had seen the man emerging from the boathouse the day before, so it was safe to say that the chef could possibly know more about the less ethical goings-on than most of the others. He frowned at the thought. He had instinctively liked Rene; but it wouldn't be the first time that he'd been wrong about someone. He hoped that his supposed boss's reason for being in the boathouse had been innocent, but he wasn't particularly optimistic.
At last, they had everyone gathered in the sitting room and Clark made a super-fast sweep through the house, looking for stragglers. The invaders were creeping up toward the house, expecting trouble; he knew that from a quick check with his x-ray vision and super-hearing and he didn't want anyone accidentally hurt or killed. It was then that he discovered how wise he had been to retain his disguise.
As he entered the upstairs study of his host, he felt it; the searing tingle on his skin of Kryptonite exposure, followed by the telltale joint pain and a bone-deep ache. His legs began to shake and he felt his strength start to drain away. He stopped in the doorway, leaning on the frame for support.
Lex Luthor looked up from an open drawer of his desk, and smiled casually at him, while tucking a sheaf of papers into a briefcase and snapping it closed. As he did so, Clark caught the gleam of green, flashing from a stone on the middle finger of his left hand.
"Raoul, isn't it?" Luthor asked, in a pleasant tone that made chills crawl up Clark's back as he struggled to conceal the effect of the deadly stone. "The chef. I must say, I've enjoyed your cooking, and I'm truly sorry I won't be in a position to indulge in any more of your excellent meals, but as you see, something important has come up. I'm afraid I have urgent business elsewhere for the present. Ciao." He picked up the briefcase and turned to the bookshelf behind him. Clark couldn't see what he did, but he must have triggered something, for the heavy piece of furniture pivoted outward without a sound. Luthor stepped through the opening and it closed behind him as silently as it opened. Clark let himself crumple to his hands and knees, breathing heavily. Somewhere below, he heard the front doors flung open and the sounds of voices. The invaders had entered the house.
Painfully, he crawled to the bookcase, striving to find the catch that Luthor had used, but the unexpected exposure to the Kryptonite had left his head spinning. When two black clad figures appeared in the door behind him, weapons at the ready, he desisted. They weren't going to listen to any explanations he could give them at this point, and getting shot wouldn't do anyone any good. He didn't resist when they hauled him unceremoniously to his feet and half carried him out into the hallway. His powers should be back in a few minutes and then he could explain.
"Hey!" The voice was familiar, but its usual accent was missing. "Raoul, are you all right?"
Clark lifted his head. Rene Didier was standing at the head of the stairs, frowning at them. He strode quickly to Clark, gesturing peremptorily for the two men to release him and grabbed quickly for him when Clark swayed on his feet.
"Here, sit down." Rene helped him to sit on the top step and glanced at the two black-clad men. "Raoul's a chef. He only got here a few days ago. Are you okay, buddy?"
"I think so." Clark found himself grinning shakily. "Where's your accent, Rene?" he asked, trying to steady his voice.
"Oh, that." Rene spoke a phrase in perfect French. "Rene St. Cloud, Interpol. I really am from Paris." He frowned at Clark. "For that matter, where's your accent, Raoul?"
Clark shook his head, grimacing slightly at the feeling of light-headedness. He should have guessed. "If you're looking for de Los Rios, I know where he went. The bookcase opens up. There's a passage behind it. I was trying to figure out how to open it when your friends stopped me."
Rene frowned. "How do you know this?"
"I saw him. I couldn't stop him." He hesitated a moment and then decided to come clean. He reached up and peeled the beard from his chin, followed by the mustache. "Clark Kent, Daily Planet. Pleased to meet you, Monsieur St. Cloud."
Rene's eyebrows snapped together for an instant, then he chuckled. "And I, you, Mr. Kent." He waved the two men to the bookcase. "Get that thing open. Hurry." He turned back to Clark. "What happened?"
"It doesn't matter," Clark said. "I suppose you know who de Los Rios really is, don't you?"
Rene raised his eyebrows. "His prints don't match any known criminals. We simply thought him to be a crime lord who --" He broke off. "*Who* is he?"
Clark smiled. "Maybe you'd better sit down, Rene. This is going to be a shock...."
Lois, Jimmy and Mamba weren't where he'd left them, but the presence of the rubber boats left by the black-clad task force explained that. Clark examined the sand where his three companions had stood and concluded Lois had decided that changing locations was the only choice they had. Naturally, his wife would have no reason to trust the new arrivals; even he had been in doubt before he'd seen the identifying patches on their clothing.
Still, he'd better find them quickly. He was still a little paranoid when it came to Lois's talent for attracting complications without any help from her at all. Trouble just seemed to have an affinity for her.
Silently, he drifted across the powdery sand, following the indistinct marks made by their feet. Lois had led them into the stand of pines and from there, back to the perimeter of the island. She was obviously making for one of the piers.
He grinned to himself. Lois was playing it safe, which was against all of her instincts, but if Lois Lane was anything, she was conscientious. Now that she was the mother of two, she had cut back on her risk-taking tremendously. Silently, he thanked their children for that, even as he soared upward, scanning the island below him for signs of the little party.
The roar of an outboard startled him, and he glanced quickly at the employees' pier from which the sound originated. A small boat was departing the narrow dock, as fast as the noisy, little motor could take it, but there was only one man on board and his telescopic vision informed him that it wasn't Lex Luthor. A moment later, however, he saw Jimmy, Lois and Mamba hurrying down the pier toward the four remaining boats that bobbed in the water there.
A shout from behind them caught his attention. Two figures were running toward the pier. Clark recognized one of the scientists from the cloning lab and Rogan, the butler. Apparently, the two had managed to evade the invasion force. It wasn't very surprising, really, he decided. Arianna Carlin wasn't among the captives, either. He would actually have been surprised if Arianna had allowed the raid to catch her unawares on her own island. She probably had more warning systems than Rene and his partner John -- the pilot, naturally -- and other members of their team had been able to discover, and there was undoubtedly another emergency escape route from the house that they didn't know about -- probably several more. Rene's people were hunting for Luthor and his wife, but Clark didn't have much hope of their finding them. They probably knew the island and every tunnel and passage in it. As Lois said, Luthor always had a backup plan.
The cruiser pulled away from the pier and he breathed a sigh of relief. For the moment, Lois and the others were safe. Turning his attention to the situation at hand, Superman dived out of the sky and rose again over the trees, the two fugitives held tightly around their waists. Completely ignoring their angry and alarmed yells, he soared back toward the mansion.
When the cabin cruiser pulled slowly up to the mainland dock, Lois could see the neat figure of her husband waiting for them on the pier. Naturally, he'd made it ahead of them, she thought, cynically. He'd even had time to shower, shave and dress himself in a clean suit. Of course, thirty seconds would have been more than enough time for that. At least they would have the story well ahead of all the other news services.
He caught the mooring line Jimmy tossed to them and a moment later was reaching out to help Jimmy, Mamba and her to the wooden dock.
"I take it that Superman gave you a lift, huh?" she said.
"Uh huh," he said. "He told me you were on your way, so I hung around long enough to interview the relevant people and then let him fly me to meet you. We were in on the edges of a cooperative law enforcement operation. It seems they've been investigating Caribbean Imports ever since we broke the white slavery ring last year. They'd been planning the raid for some time, but weren't quite sure of some of their evidence. It was the attempted murder of one of their men -- the guy Superman flew to the mainland -- and their discovery of the cloning lab that gave them the last piece of evidence that they needed. He apparently woke up after Superman visited last night and got in touch with his superiors, and they gave the go ahead."
"So the case is all tied up?" she asked, unable to keep the edge out of her voice.
Clark shook his head. "Not entirely," he said, and the smile had disappeared from his voice.
"What do you mean?" Jimmy asked. Then, the light dawned. "Luthor got away."
Clark was nodding. "I'm afraid so. Superman caught the butler -- he's one of their top assistants, by the way -- but both the Luthors disappeared. And that was one thing we found out that they didn't know."
"You mean, they didn't know Alejandro de Los Rios was Lex Luthor?"
"Nope." Clark shook his head.
Lois felt herself perking up at that. "Then it wasn't a waste, after all. And we can get the inside scoop from Dr. Mamba here, too. It'll be Kerth material."
"When it's all over," Clark amended. He looked at Mamba. "They're going to want your testimony, you know."
The doctor nodded, looking resigned. "Yeah, I know. Maybe we can work out a deal if you'll help me, Ms. Lane."
"What kind of deal?" Jimmy asked.
Mamba pulled his lab coat around him. The morning breeze off the ocean was chilly, and all of them were damp with ocean spray. "I meant what I said before. I want to get out of the country, change my name and settle down somewhere that no one will ever hear of me again. Particularly, where the Luthors will never be able to find me. If Superman can help me with that, well --"
"I get it," Lois said, feeling surprising sympathy for the man. She knew what it was like to have Luthor as an adversary. Mamba didn't want to be looking over his shoulder for the rest of his life. "I think we can probably work something out."
The next flight to Metropolis wasn't until afternoon, they discovered, and Jimmy wasn't averse to Clark's suggestion that they find a motel where they could grab a bite to eat and catch some sleep until their flight was due. He'd been up all night, involved in one of the most exciting and dangerous episodes in his short career as a reporter. Ralph's assessment of the investigative methods of Lane and Kent came to mind, and he grinned to himself. This was something he wouldn't have missed for anything. It was the biggest story of his life, and Lois and Clark had informed him of the fact that his byline was going to be right there beside their own when it appeared on the front page. He hadn't expected that when he volunteered to help, but he wasn't about to turn it down; as if they would give him a choice, anyway, he thought. He stretched out on the bed in his darkened room, slightly more than two hours after they had dropped Mamba off with Clark's friend, Rene. It had been an incredible experience, and as keyed-up as he was, he wasn't sure he would be able to sleep, but once horizontal, he felt the fatigue of the last hours begin to catch up with him.
The sound of something heavy falling to the floor in the adjoining room jerked him out of the doze into which he was drifting a few minutes later. He lay still for a moment listening.
The sound wasn't repeated, and he was starting to relax once more when Lois's voice cried out. "No! Get that away!"
Jimmy sat up, straining his ears for any clue as to what was happening. Lois had sounded frightened, and that was enough to raise his hackles. There was very little that frightened Lois Lane. Something was very, very wrong.
Lois couldn't believe how quickly things had gone from perfect to disastrous. They had neglected to think of the possibility that Lex might have resources off the island as well as on. Once they registered at the motel, their whereabouts were known, and Lex had never been quite as pragmatic where she was concerned as he was about everything else.
Clark lay crumpled on the floor with Lex standing over him, smiling coldly.
"Get that away from him," Lois said.
Lex caressed the stone of his ring, and his eyes narrowed slightly. "I don't think so, Lois. Does your husband know about your little liaison with Superman? I always thought the relationship you and he had was closer than the compliant Mr. Kent realized. I have to admire your...cold-bloodedness. It might even rival my own."
"My relationship with Superman is none of your business!" Lois pushed back the blanket, in disregard of the fact that she wore only Clark's shirt. Lex's gaze flicked briefly to the long, bare length of her legs, but she ignored it and slid to the floor beside her husband. "What do you want, Lex?"
Lex smiled ironically and gestured very slightly with the little, black semi-automatic. "You, my dear. You were always mine, you know. You accepted my ring, and I gave up everything for you."
Lois was careful not to look at the green stone that had brought Clark down. Let Lex believe what he wished, but she had to get that thing away from Clark, not matter what the consequences were to her. "Does Arianna know about this?" she asked. "I thought she was your wife."
Lex chuckled. "Perhaps in name," he admitted. "But in spirit, you've always belonged in my heart. I've been trapped on that island for nearly three years. I really have to thank you, you know. This whole situation has allowed me the chance to escape. You'll come with me, Lois. And without Superman to hunt us down, we'll be safe."
"The only way I'll come with you is if you get that...*thing* away from him!"
Clark twisted his face toward her. "Lois...no." The words were barely audible but Lex heard them. He laughed softly.
"Oh, don't worry, Superman. As much as I love Lois, there was never that option. I never let emotion get between me and what I want."
"Love!" Lois knew that the effort was fruitless, but the urge to protect her husband was strong. She tried to place her body between him and the evil green stone "You don't know what love is!"
Lex gripped her by the arm and yanked her aside. "Oh, no you don't, Lois. Tell me, when you refused me during our engagement, were you giving yourself to this alien? Or to Kent -- or both? I wondered about that while I was in prison, you know. I was too trusting, but no more. This time, I intend to make *sure*."
Lois acted on instinct. Lex had a gun, and he might shoot her, but he was killing Clark. She'd always known that if it came down to it she would be willing to die for him, and now, she didn't hesitate. She struck at the weapon with her free hand. It flew sideways onto the rug and she flung herself after it.
Lex dived for her at the same time, tackling her and pinning her to the rug with his greater weight and strength. Lois's flailing hand struck the pistol and it slid farther away from her groping fingers. She writhed under her assailant, striking backwards with an elbow at his face.
She heard Lex's gasp of pain as she connected with his cheekbone and then he rolled sideways, yanking her around. His expression of fury would have frightened her if she hadn't already reached her limit of fear anyway. Clinically, he drew back his hand and slapped her, hard.
Her cry of pain coincided with a crash, as the door slammed open. Lex yelled in anger and released her, instinctively scrambling to his knees to meet the new threat. Lois had a confused impression of Jimmy's white face, and of a table lamp in his hands, followed by a shattering sound. Half stunned, she lunged single-mindedly for the pistol where it lay partly under a small table, seized it and twisted around -- only to find herself staring at Lex Luthor, face down on the floor with a wide trickle of blood seeping from a deep gash on his temple and soaking the carpet. Jimmy knelt beside the unconscious man, a grim set to his mouth and jaw, yanked the cord from the lamp and proceeded to lash Lex's hands tightly together behind his back. When he had finished, he looked up at her.
"Where is it?" he asked, and she could hear his voice shaking.
"The ring," she whispered. Her ears were still singing from the force of Lex's slap. Not entirely sure of her balance, she remained sitting on the rug, trying to focus her eyes.
Jimmy didn't hesitate. He yanked the ring, with the large, uncut, green crystal, quite ungently from Lex's hand, examined it for a split second and nodded.
"Stay here," he said. "I'll be right back."
Gripping the ring tightly in his fist, he left the room, pulling the door shut behind him.
Clark moaned softly, trying to push himself upright. After a moment, he succeeded. He looked first at Luthor, then at Lois.
"Honey, are you okay?"
Lois found her hands shaking. Carefully, she set the pistol on the little ornamental table, and closed her eyes for a long second.
"Lois?" Clark's voice was stronger, and sounded more concerned. "Are you all right?"
She opened her eyes. Clark's face was a little blurry, still, and her head was throbbing from the blow. "I think so."
"Sit still." Clark began to work his way across the floor on hands and knees. "He hit you."
"I'm all right. But, Jimmy...."
"Yeah." Clark made it to her side, carefully avoiding Luthor and the puddle of blood that was soaking the carpet. "I guess I'd better try and stop the bleeding."
There was a soft knock on the door. Jimmy's voice said, "Can I come in?"
"Uh -- yeah." Clark's voice sounded uncertain.
Jimmy opened the door quietly, stepped within and closed it. Lois couldn't read the expression on his face. He glanced clinically at Luthor. "I guess we should call your friend, Rene, huh?"
"Uh -- yeah. Jimmy --"
Jimmy shook his head. "I'd better stop that bleeding," he said. "There's towels in your bathroom, right?" Without waiting for an answer, he disappeared into the bathroom and re-emerged a few seconds later with a thick bath towel. He knelt beside Luthor and pressed the terrycloth to the freely bleeding gash.
"Um -- Jimmy," Clark said, again.
Jimmy glanced at him, and Lois was surprised to see a nervous smile on his face. He was still pale and looked a little shaken, but his voice was steady when he answered. "Why don't you make that call? We can talk about it when he --" he glanced distastefully at Luthor. " -- When he's gone and I can afford to have my nervous breakdown." He looked at Lois. "Are you okay, Lois? Your face is bruised."
She was careful not to move her head. Any motion made the throbbing worse. "I think so." She was surprised to hear the waver in her voice. "You're a little blurry."
Jimmy looked worried. "You might have a concussion. Maybe you should see a doctor."
"We'll deal with that too, after we've taken care of Luthor." Clark was sounding stronger by the minute. He reached for the cell phone that lay on the little table next to the gun. "Then we owe you an explanation."
Jimmy reached over to put a hand on his arm. "You guys are my friends," he said. "You don't have to explain anything. It doesn't matter what that low-life thinks." He gave Luthor a venomous look that surprised Lois. "I just want to see him back on Stryker's Island where he belongs. I've had enough of Mr. Luthor."
Clark began to punch a number into the phone. "I think we all have."
Rene St. Cloud watched the van bearing Alejandro de Los Rios, a.k.a. Lex Luthor, pull away from the motel, then turned and re-entered the room where Lois Lane still sat in an armchair, an ice pack held to her bruised face. His friend, Clark Kent, was seated next to her on the arm of the chair, a concerned look on his face. Kent's young colleague, James Olsen, was perched across from them on the foot of the bed.
The young reporter hadn't said much, other than to explain that he'd heard what was happening in the room and seized the opportunity provided by Ms. Lane's distraction to hit Luthor with a lamp. They had called Superman, and Rene's people at once. Superman had left within a few minutes of Rene's arrival, and a short time later, Clark had appeared with the ice pack for his wife's bruised cheek.
Rene shook his head. He'd liked Raoul Desrosiers when they first met, and lamented slightly the fact that when Kent had decided to become a reporter, the world had lost a true culinary artist. Now he approached the trio, turning a concerned look on Ms. Lane. His friend's wife was a very beautiful woman, he thought, and he briefly envied Kent his good fortune.
"Luthor's on his way," he reported. "How are you feeling, Ms. Lane?"
"All right." She smiled carefully at him, wincing slightly. "This isn't the first time this sort of thing has happened."
"Your doctor said she has a slight concussion," Clark said. "He gave me a list of symptoms to watch for."
Rene nodded. "I'm truly sorry that this happened, Ms. Lane. If there's anything more that I can do, you only need to ask."
"That's all right," she said. "Just make sure the Planet gets the exclusive on this story, that's all."
Rene laughed. "You have my word," he said. "My bosses may not be too happy, but I can live with it. I'll be in Metropolis in a couple of weeks' time. Perhaps I could drop by and we can have a long talk?"
"That would be fine, Rene," Clark said. "Maybe you can teach me your secret to that great souffle you made the first night I was on the island. You know, the world lost a great chef when you decided to become a cop."
"I was thinking the same of you, my friend," Rene said. He reached out to take Lois Lane's hand and lifted it to his lips. "It was a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Lane. I wish it could have been under better circumstances." He turned to shake Olsen's hand, and Clark's. "Until later, then."
When Rene's people had departed, Clark closed the motel room door and fastened the chain lock. He turned to look at Jimmy. Their friend hadn't said much since he'd rescued them from Luthor, and Clark was a little unsure of what to say.
"Um..." he began, "Jim --"
Jimmy, laughed nervously. "You don't have to explain. I already know why you didn't tell me about Superman."
He nodded. "Sure. I figured it out a few months ago. Protecting people is what Superman does."
Clark looked wordlessly at Lois. It seemed that their underestimation of Jimmy Olsen had been even greater than they'd realized in the last few days. Lois fixed Jimmy with a stern glare. "How long have you known?"
He shrugged. "I don't know. I'd been noticing things for a long time, and a few months ago I sort of realized that I knew. I wasn't going to tell you."
His gaze dropped to his hands, which were folded tightly in his lap. "I didn't want you to worry."
Clark stared at him in surprise, then he laughed softly. "I thought Superman was supposed to protect other people. I didn't realize you thought he needed to be protected, too."
"No," Lois said, suddenly. "He's right, Clark. Superman can't do everything. At least he's got friends who can protect him when he needs it." She looked directly across at him. "Thanks, Jimmy." She stopped. "Or," she added, "would you rather I called you Jim?"
"Jimmy's all right," he said. "I'd feel funny if you changed it now."
Clark was silent, watching the two of them. Jimmy had come through when they needed him most. It was the final proof, as if it was actually needed, that his young friend had quietly grown up in front of his eyes and he hadn't noticed. It was, in a way, a shock and he felt a curious sense of loss, as well. Jimmy, the boy, had gone, and he would never be back. In his place was a very competent young man. A young man that he was proud to call his friend.
"Are you okay, Clark?" Lois asked.
"Sure," he said. He glanced at his watch. "Well, I guess our chance to get a little rest is over. We've got about and hour and a half to catch our plane." He got to his feet. "I think Perry owes us a few days off after this. Would you like to come to Smallville with us for a short visit, Jim? I think we all could use it." He added with a slight grin, "Superman Express, of course."
Jimmy's worried expression vanished. "That sounds great, CK. I remember your mom's cooking from the last time I was there."
"Good. Then it's settled. Why don't you call a cab while I pay the bill?"
The Kent kitchen sure smelled good, Jimmy thought. It reminded him of his grandmother's place and how he'd loved the aromas that always seemed to fill her kitchen every time he was there at Christmas and Thanksgiving. He'd even liked Jonathan's spicy chicken recipe, even though he'd downed two glasses of water after the first bite. It kind of caught you by surprise, as Clark had remarked while Jimmy had been trying not to embarrass himself by choking to death in front of Clark's family. After that, it seemed to get better, although he suspected part of the reason was simply his taste buds going into shock.
Lois looked a lot more like herself with her hair back to its usual color, although it was going to take a while for it to grow back to its previous length. Unfortunately, the only thing he'd been able to do about his own was to leave it. He really had no desire to go to the beauty parlor to get it colored -- it would grow out after while, and then he could get rid of the perm. Still, he didn't think he'd return to his former, longer style. It didn't fit with his new, more adult image. Lois and Clark had been treating him differently ever since the last night on Crescent Island, two days ago, and he found that he liked it. Maybe the time was right to try that new look that Alicia had been suggesting for him last week. He had to start looking like an adult sometime, and if he did, maybe Perry would realize that he actually was one.
He realized suddenly that Clark's mother was asking him a question, and he blinked, bringing himself back to the present.
"More pie, Jimmy?" Martha Kent asked, a second time. "There's one more piece of lemon meringue and a whole apple pie left."
"Sure." Jimmy held out his plate. Clark's mother shoveled a generous piece of pie onto it.
"It's nice to see a young man who enjoys his food," Martha said, happily.
"I always eat everything you cook!" Clark protested, sounding hurt.
"You eat bombs, too," Martha said, with a grin. She patted her son's knee. "Don't worry, Clark, no one else will ever be in your pie-eating class -- at least until CJ and Marta hit their teens." She turned and took the apple pie from the sideboard. "Would you like a piece of apple pie?"
Clark allowed her to deposit a large wedge of pie on his plate. "Thanks, Mom." He grinned at Jimmy. "It's probably just as well that I do have a Kryptonian metabolism. If I didn't, I'd be fat by now."
Jimmy, his mouth full of lemon meringue, nodded. He swallowed manfully. "Now I know where you got your cooking talent, CK. This is great, Martha."
"So, anyway," Jonathan interjected, drawing the conversation back to the previous subject, "what happened to the Kryptonite ring?"
"I smashed it," Jimmy said. "I didn't want anyone else to ever find it, so I took it outside and hit it with one of the rocks they had around their flower bed. It sort of exploded. Then I threw the ring and the powder that was left down the toilet."
Jonathan nodded satisfied approval. "Good job," he said. "And Luthor is out of circulation, so that's the end of Caribbean Imports."
"Not quite," Lois said. "They never found Arianna. They're still hunting for her, but so far she just seems to have disappeared. And we still don't know what her 'special project', that Clark heard those two clone-makers talking about, was. Rene told us that they found one of the cloning cylinders in a separate room, all hooked up, but without anything in it. I hope there's no relation."
"So do I," Martha said.
They were all silent for a few moments, eating the pie and contemplating the possibilities of Arianna Carlin's "special project".
"Well," Clark said, at last, "she's without her usual resources. It will probably take a while to build them up again so we have some time, anyway. And there's always the possibility that she'll be caught."
"There's that," Lois agreed. "At least we don't have to worry that there's a full-grown clone of Clark running around somewhere. I worried about that for awhile, you know, after I realized the man I saw that night wasn't him. It turned out he was one of Rene's men. Once I saw him up close, when they came to get Lex, I realized he didn't look anything like Clark. Actually, he looked more like Dan Scardino."
"I think I've been insulted," Clark said.
"Oh, Clark, don't be silly," Lois said. "Dan was never really in your league, you know, and if you hadn't been so lunkheaded about the whole thing, you'd have realized it."
Jimmy listened to the banter going back and forth between Lois, Clark and Clark's parents. Watching them, he knew why Clark had grown up to be the person he was. The world owed almost as much to Martha and Jonathan for the character of the man who had become Superman as it did to the man, himself. Then he forgot about it as CJ, clad in Superman pajamas, toddled into the room. Clark moved to pick him up.
"Hey there, pal. Don't tell me you climbed out of your crib again," he said.
"Pie!" CJ announced, confidently.
Jimmy began to laugh.