Bibbo didn't reach for the baseball bat. All the regulars were in shock at what they were seeing, and none were able to move.
Clark Kent had stormed into the bar in a rage.
Clark Kent had grabbed two people by the throat and slammed them against the wall.
The usually rowdy bar was silent as the patrons watched the two men struggle against the reporter's grip. They clawed at his hands and tried to kick him as their faces began to change colour.
"Clark! NO!" shouted Lois as she ran through the still open door. She rushed up to Clark and began pulling on his arm. The two men began to make choking noises. "Clark, please. Let them go. This isn't you."
The look on Clark's face was something Lois never expected to see – the grimace, the clenched teeth, the seething anger…and the tears in the corner of his eye.
The cuts marking his face were something she hadn't seen in a long time. When Clark first got stuck in to investigative journalism in Metropolis he had stirred up the attentions of a lot of people. Back then, Lois had been so angry at him for doing so. She had spent two years cultivating contacts and insiders and Clark had come barrelling in and had pretty much ruined everything. Lois had been wholly aware that there were various 'webs' of crime in Metropolis, with some of those webs overlapping and interlinking with each other, but Clark didn't care.
Clark Kent, the crusading reporting for the Daily Star.
Clark Kent, the most hated blogger of Metropolis. Of course, the fact that it was certain members of the police force, the justice department and a number of civil servants who extolled their hate wasn't missed by a number of Metropolis' citizens.
"They killed them, Lois," he said through grit teeth. The men's eyes were bulging and they were choking and rasping. Clark's forearms were bleeding.
He closed his eyes and Lois saw a tear slowly roll down his right cheek. He stepped back and loosened his grip. The two men fell to their knees gasping for air, swearing at the tall reporter as he turned his back on them.
The crowd looked at Lois questioningly.
"There was an explosion," she said quietly. "People died. These men-"
"Ain't got nufin' to do with it," rasped one of the men. "You can't prove nufin'."
"I'm going to have to ask you to leave," rumbled Bibbo.
"No, Miss Lane, not you two. Them."
The two men helped each other up and one of them rasped, "This is a dump, anyway."
The crowd eyed them warily but let them leave. Quietly they picked up the tables and chairs Clark had barrelled through and rearranged the room. Clark stood looking down at the floor, his fists tightly clenched and blood running down his forearms.
"Let's get that seen to, Mr Kent," said Bibbo quietly as he gently led Clark to the crib room. "Nothing else going on here, folks. Show's over," he said over his shoulder.
Lois stood at one end of the room, talking on the phone to Perry. Clark leant against the desk as Bibbo tended to his forearms with antiseptic from the medi-kit.
"You should get your ribs checked out, Mr Kent, those guys were kicking you pretty hard."
"They'll heal," said Clark softly.
"Perry, there were at least 76 people in that building, not including the officers who had just gone in. We need to know what happened. Superman had given it the all-clear an hour before the raid. I know, hopefully we'll hear from him soon. Clark's with me now. The explosion knocked him out for a little while and he's refusing to go to the hospital to get checked up. An 'order'? C'mon, Perry, you think he'll go with that?"
"Um…Mr Kent…your back seems to be bleeding, too." Clark looked at Bibbo, confused.
"Just take the shirt off, Clark," said Lois as she hung up the phone. "If you're refusing to go to the hospital at least let us patch you up. Don't be embarrassed about your Superman undershirt, lots of guys have them these days."
Seeing that it was pointless to argue with them, Clark stood up and unbuttoned his shirt. He winced as he began to take it off and Bibbo stepped up to help him. He was wearing a white undershirt and the back of it was red with blood. Several pieces of shrapnel poked through.
"Adrenalin," said Bibbo. "Sometimes ya just don't know yer hurt. I really think you oughta go to the hospital, though, Mr Kent."
Clark shook his head. "Another time, perhaps, Bibbo. For now, see what you can do to remove them. Lois and I have work to do."
Clark looked at Lois and saw she was a little pale. "When you shielded me?" she whispered. Clark smiled through the pain.
"You know, Mr Kent, you really ought not ta slouch so much, makes you look fatter than you are. Good posture's important."
Clark smiled, "I'll keep that in mind, Bibbo." He said as he patted the tape Bibbo had wrapped around his ribs.
"Clark, why did you say 'something's wrong' just before the explosion?" asked Lois as Bibbo helped him into a fresh shirt.
"You said 'something's wrong' and then jumped over the barricade. Why?"
"I…I heard something. It didn't make sense."
"I'm not sure. Not yet." Clark checked his phone and frowned. "We should get to the office and see what information's been released so far. Maybe we can piece together what happened after Superman did his check. Thanks for your help, Bibbo, and I'm sorry about the ruckus."
Bibbo shook his head dismissively, "If those men had a part in the deaths of anyone..." he pounded his fist into his palm, and Clark nodded in understanding.
As the elevator doors opened Lois shouted out, "Jimmy! Have any reports from the explosion come in yet?"
"Nothing so far, Lois. Everyone's clammed up. All we know so far is that at least 100 people were killed, and Superman's missing."
"No one's seen or heard from him since just before the explosion. He gave the 'all clear' and was in Europe and then North Africa, but after that there's nothing."
"Okay," she said as she turned to Clark. "I'll track Superman, you focus on finding out what happened at the docks and how a bomb got in there."
Everyone's phone pinged – it was a brief, terse, press release:
Preliminary investigations confirm that the explosion at the docks earlier today was caused by a large bomb. Investigation is underway regarding the possibility of the bomb containing radioactive material. Quarantine is to be put in place.
Clark slumped to the floor, unconscious.
The silent machine reviewed emergency calls in Metropolis and rarely ever did more than that. Today, however, it pinged.
'…Clark Kent has collapsed. He's bleeding heavily.'
'I have the Daily Planet building as your location, please confirm.'
'Yes, we're on the 44th floor.'
The machine pinged again.
The destroyed building had changed hands several times over the past decade but as Lois dug deeper it became clear that the two main groups that had ties to it had been LexCorp and Intergang. In fact, the whole area was basically the battleground of a corporate war conducted through real estate. The registered owners were never either of those two, of course, as Lois peeled away at the corporate umbrellas, holding companies, subsidiaries and so on, but those two hands could be recognised. By her, or Clark, or Perry, or a competent lawyer, but not enough for the police, and certainly not enough to convince a jury. There was never enough for them or the courts. It was never 'beyond reasonable doubt'.
It was times like this that Lois had some jealousy of Clark's ability to get people to open up to him. He made it look so easy, and there was a time, early on, when Lois suspected that maybe he had some form of hypnotic approach. After working with him, though, she realised it was because he was 'just Clark' and, as annoying as it was for a reporter like her, it was just the way he is.
They had been working on this case, this story, for a few months and both had expressed frustration at the Organized Crime Unit's refusal to allow Superman to be involved. Granted, they understood the need to determine the various chains and entry points, but people's lives were at stake…and Superman could save them. Easily.
'But that's just it,' Clark had said, 'you and I both know that Superman can't be everywhere at once. Until we know the extent of this organisation he could be putting other lives at risk.'
Together, they had uncovered and helped foil three transports in as many months but this had been the first major one in Metropolis. After she had infiltrated and exposed a slave trade ring, Lois had partnered up with Clark in order to uncover the people behind the people. Clark had a wealth of experience in this area of investigation, in his time travelling the globe, before joining the Daily Planet, he had exposed more than a dozen such organizations. Lois now understood the bags of 'fan mail' he received a couple of times a year – they were from those he had helped find freedom a long time ago.
Lois looked up as Jimmy walked by. He shook his head sadly. Superman hadn't been seen anywhere on the planet for the past four hours, and now Clark was in the hospital and in surgery. She spotted Perry pacing frantically in his office, his face ashen. She frowned as she tried to lip-read:
'What do you mean there's no record of an EMT taking Clark...?'
Although the Ace o' Clubs was 'the' hangout place for the lower denizens of Metropolis, there were a couple of others places which catered to 'the lowest of the low'. One of them was a place with an otherwise unassuming name: 'The Untied Shoe'. Originally a speakeasy, it maintained its ties to the Metropolis underworld throughout its existence and was one of a select few places which were considered 'neutral ground'.
The Old Man tended to avoid coming here, favouring the less confrontational atmosphere of the Ace o' Clubs, but he was known and was 'permitted'. The rumour was that he had saved the lives of several 'higher-ups', some said that it included members of the family that run the joint, and that he had 'a free pass'. There was another rumour that he was the devil made flesh and visited when he wanted to take a look at the work of his underlings.
The door opened as he approached, the watchers in the area had already alerted the doorman and other staff that he was on his way. The Old Man shuffled inside, slower than usual, and nodded a greeting. He allowed himself to be escorted to his favourite table and was presented with a cold glass of milk.
When they had started working on the case, before presenting it to Perry and getting the go-ahead to progress it, Clark had quickly come to the conclusion that there was a splinter group at work within the overall organisation. Lois wasn't so sure, there wasn't much of anything within the data they had that would distinguish the kind of 'splinter group' Clark was alluding to from the four or five main 'cells', but she knew Clark had a nose for minutiae.
For the past fifteen minutes Lois found herself struggling to calm down. Clark had been hurt in the explosion, his body riddled with shrapnel that he had ignored, he had collapsed right next to her, and he was missing and Perry wasn't coming out of his office... She exhaled loudly, stood up, grabbed a box of files on Clark's desk and headed to a reading room.
'I used to read your work whenever I could. Sometimes I had to rely on translations and that meant some of the passion was lost, but I knew it was your work even if the by-line wasn't there. Don't think I'm putting you on a pedestal, Lois – I mean, the way you piece things, seemingly disparate things, together, is great to read and, frankly, amusing and amazing to watch and experience – but sometimes…sometimes I think you need to take a moment to sift through the dirt again. Maybe it's the small town in me, or maybe I just enjoy taking in as much as I can, but I've often found that taking a step back can literally change how you see things.'
'Splinter group…splinter group…' muttered Lois as she sorted through the files. Servitude, sex industry, forced labour, marriage, and organs – they were the main 'groups'. What kind of 'splinter group' had Clark been thinking of? What made him come to such a conclusion in the first place?
The Old Man was angry and frustrated – for two hours he had been in 'The Untied Shoe', lip-reading, filtering conversations, watching body language, yet no one present had had anything to do with the explosion…with the deaths.
Three men entered, two headed to an empty table while the third made his way to an occupied table near the middle of the room. He was tall but slight in build. His head was shaven, as were his eyebrows, and he had dark circles under his eyes. The Old Man recognised him as 'Revenant', a man who had no direct affiliation with any of the Metropolis networks and who preferred being a 'go-between'. He whispered something to one of the attendants and the old man leaned forward, frowning, as he watched the attendant convey the message to 'Baron Nemo Slop'.
'The meta children are lost.'
Slop's face reddened and, after a few moments, he excused himself from the table. The attendant helped him with the chair and placed the overcoat over Slop's shoulders.
The Old Man breathed sharply through his nose as the aches throbbing across his back sharpened. He turned his attention back to the other two men and glared. They were the two Clark Kent had pinned to a wall earlier.
The Old Man got up and followed as they left. None of the others were of interested to him, Revenant was the one who had the answers he wanted.
The folder tucked away under three thick folders only contained half a dozen pages – extracts from two articles published in what seemed to be an obscure research journal, and a handwritten list of research companies. Lois keyed the abbreviated journal name into a search engine – it was a genetics journal but didn't seem to have the standing of the other journals on the results page.
'Why genetics, Clark? What did you spot?'
She looked out over the press room and over at Perry's office, and felt her chest lighten as she saw him smile at whatever he was hearing at the other end of the phone call. Her attentions no longer divided, she began to look through Clark's notes again.
'Man has always wanted to be more. Whether it be the invulnerability of Achilles, the strength of Hercules, or the flight of Icarus; whether it be the ability to calm a storm or part a river; whether it be the ability to be wherever you wanted to be or even be invisible, man has always wanted more.'
'This is supposed to be an article on genetics?' thought Lois to herself. 'Oh, here we go:'
'DNA methylation is an established biochemical process, however the incorporation of meta-material in a permanent and unidirectional manner in either embryonic stem cells or an established entity has been problematic. To date, non-meta-material has been readily received by embryonic stem cells, allowing the formation of specific tissues, for example, but the addition of meta-material without having to rely on suppressive stabilisers or accelerated growth techniques has meant that advanced establishment and future seeding is, at the moment, unlikely. Grafting meta-material into established entities has primarily required immuno-suppressors, the undesired effect being that the entities' longevity is dramatically and unalterably reduced. Developments in carcinogenesis and genomic imprinting, using pre-adolescent genetic material, has resulted in the possibility to piggyback on to gene promoter CpG islands which have acquired abnormal hypermethylation.'
'Oh my God, this is a sales pitch!'
Lois turned to the other article, a 'research piece' on the increased presence of the 'meta-gene' across the world in the past five years, listing the areas of highest concentration and the abilities which have been recorded.
The trafficking of humans is widely believed to affect almost every country in the world, and it is something Clark Kent has tried to tackle in various ways over the years. Overall, his success has varied but this has never dissuaded him, and it never will. Lois was now piecing together the other aspect of Clark's investigation, the 'splinter group' as he had called it.
The trafficking of meta-children to be sold on to research labs, and other organisations…
Slop lay on the floor unconscious. Around him were the unconscious bodies of his three bodyguards, his attendant and two men who had deep bruising around their necks. As he twisted Revenant's arm a little more, Cross surveyed the scene and shook his head. He knew Bruce would have chided him on being 'sloppy'.
'Explain,' he growled, as bits of gravel cut into Revenant's face and went into his mouth. He eased the pressure on his arm and back slightly and Revenant raised his head and spat out the gravel.
'Figure it out for yourself,' he said through grit teeth.
'Where did the Kryptonite come from?'
Revenant chuckled through the pain. 'Probably Iraq or Iran. I forget which.' He yelped involuntarily as Cross let go of his arm and began to walk away. Revenant got to his knees, tending his throbbing shoulder, and shouting out at the old man.
Cross turned, his eyes flashing red, and Revenant slumped down and quietly whispered 'Mastema'. Blue lights flashed on a far wall.
Lois found Clark standing at the edge of the cordoned area. His tie flapped around as the wind picked up. He stared into the dark rubble, his jaw clenching and unclenching.
'I went to Wayne Labs and found you'd discharged yourself. Jimmy said you'd be here,' said Lois and she pulled her hair back a little.
Clark nodded. 'Superman didn't know they had access to Kryptonite. An oversight, and no excuse for him failing-'
'Failing?' interjected Lois.
'77 men, women and children, not including the officers and bystanders-'
'77? But the manifests we found said 76 in total.'
'There was one more. Kept in reserve in case something like the raid was to happen.'
'So there wasn't a leak in the department?'
'No. Revenant made a call as the teams got into place.' Clark nudged at some of the rubble with his shoe, uncovering a piece of gold in the dirt, before turning to look at Lois. 'You've seen my research?' She nodded. 'In the Middle East there's been an increase in meta-children with an ability they call 'Tay al-Ard'.'
'I don't remember reading that.'
'It's basically teleportation. 'Traversing the Earth without moving'.'
'They got a kid to teleport in with a Kryptonite bomb?!'
Clark nodded. 'For the most part, the children have strong familial bonds which means they can always teleport back to their families no matter where they are. Lois, these kids want nothing more than to be free with their families, to teleport away with everyone and be happy. So far, though, I don't think any of them has had the ability to teleport a living organism along with themselves.'
'So when you said you heard something..?'
'The unit had placed receivers around the building,' he held out a small ear-piece, 'one of the techs had given me this so that I could listen in. There was a…a popping and electrical discharge sound and then a child's voice saying 'Mom, I found you'.'
It's a story we have heard before, and many now choose to dismiss it. Others, however, realise that it could have been them if circumstances had been different. The 'American Dream' – everybody's dream – is to have a good life. A better life. It is a dream shared by every single person who died in the dockyard explosion last night – from the seven members of the Metropolis SCU and two members of the fire department, to the 77 men, women and children who had been abducted and smuggled to Metropolis, and it is a dream shared by all who were there and survived.
It's a dream that others try to exploit.