Chapter 25: Duality
The two men to either side of her were obviously speaking, but all of it seemed muffled, like sound underwater. Lois blinked her eyes rapidly trying to focus, trying to wake up. But the combination of her worry over Richard’s next move and that incredibly vivid dream…
Even now, she could feel the ghost of Clark’s hands on her body, and the palpable shock of Richard walking in on them. Thank goodness it was only a dream! Or thank goodness that last part was… she thought, sparing a glance at her secret love. She wondered when she would be able to tell Clark exactly what had happened at the coffee shop. He had barely returned before they had been called into their meeting with Perry. But it looked like it would have to wait. Clark was earnestly trying to explain to Perry why they should be allowed to continue on the L & V investigation.
“…especially with the widespread damage throughout the city. We, uh, made a list of all of the properties, cross-checking them against our list of construction companies.” Clark looked over at her, nervous about her strange silence, and then continued. “Just about all of the most heavily damaged ones were originally handled by L & V in the last few years. Of course not all of them were, but…”
Perry cut him off impatiently. “I know all of this, Kent. But have you found any more evidence to help prove that this is more than an unfortunate coincidence?”
Clark looked at their editor-in-chief wordlessly. This time, Lois knew it was no act. She jumped in, finally shaking off her inertia. “I’m sure it’s no coincidence, Chief.” Perry pierced her with an annoyed look. “Perry. Look, first of all, how likely is it that all of these projects by the same company would be affected? The other companies involved had only a few buildings each. And most were much older, standing ten years or more. Second, Superman himself told us his suspicions about the shoddy materials…”
“There you go again with ‘Superman told us.’ What exactly did he tell you?”
Lois allowed Clark to explain. “He… Superman… scanned each of the buildings in question and determined that the concrete used was less dense than it should be.” As he spoke, his demeanor grew increasingly more bold. “The foundations, the retaining walls… anywhere that concrete was used. As a result, the buildings were very unstable, and crumbled during the earthquake.”
Lois shivered a little at his confident, dulcet voice. She could almost picture his regal bearing as he explained the situation. But then she looked fully at him, blinked and did a double-take. Clark had the same hunched posture, the same falsely high-pitched voice he had always used around the office. Weird, she thought. Amazing how my whole image of him has completely changed in a few short days…
They were hoping that Superman’s information would impress Perry enough to give them just a little more time to research Mitchener. They had been turning in related side-stories on the construction efforts: the original Harris Building collapse, the city’s efforts in the disaster clean-up, the interview with Mitchener yesterday, but they didn’t have that page one exclusive Perry craved… and she could see it in his stern, disappointed eyes.
“So what do you have on the sub-contractor who poured this faulty concrete?” Perry asked, quite logically.
Beside her, Clark stilled. Lois flushed. “Nothing yet…” How stupid of them to forget something so obvious! You’re no cub reporter, still wet behind the ears! she chided herself, face burning. And you’re not a totally self-involved boy-crazy teenager, either! she added, totally ashamed that her personal crises had interfered with her work. “I’m sorry; we’ve been too focused on…” She looked over helplessly at Clark. “…on Mitchener.”
“Well, I would tell you to look into that instead…” Perry shook his head at them, clearly unimpressed. “But you already know it, and it’s too late anyway.” He came around to the front of the desk and leaned back against it, displeasure showing strongly on his face. “Lane, Kent – you two are off your game. Where’s that remarkable team I remember so well?”
Perry’s words made her want to leap up in angry defense… but he was absolutely right. Clark kept silent beside her. He knew it was true as well as she did.
Not getting any response from either of them, Perry let out a heavy breath. “Well, then. I said you had until today, and I meant it,” he said with finality, walking back around to his chair. “So let’s focus on something else…”
As Perry began to shuffle papers in a file folder on his desk, Lois turned to Clark and gazed into his deep blue eyes, drawn to the apology forming there. She felt just as sheepish, and furthermore, she was deeply upset that they hadn’t been able to get to the bottom of the story. She started to mouth a simple ‘Next time’ around the lump forming in her throat, when Clark froze, eyes widening.
‘What is it?’ she mouthed instead, but his eyes were focused unseeing past her. His head snapped back, and he began to look frantically from side to side, searching for a way out of the room without raising suspicion.
“Chief,” he said, a note of panicked apology in his voice, “I think I have to…”
Lois could clearly see his panic and agitation. Clark seemed totally wired, completely wound up and coiled inside like a tight spring, desperate to shoot into the air and go streaking off to some sort of crisis. She tried to help… “Yes, Clark, I think you should…” she said almost simultaneously, the words spilling out of her mouth, half-formed.
“Do what?” Perry asked, turning back to them, confused.
Before Perry could get an answer, Jimmy came bursting through the office door, out of breath. “Mr. White! There’s been another building collapse on the West Side! A big one!”
Always cool in a crisis, Perry sprang into action, forgetting or ignoring their strange behavior. “All right. The three of you – get over there immediately. I want photos, interviews… Is Superman on the scene yet?”
“I don’t think so,” Jimmy said, looking down at the printout from the wire service he had in his hand.
“Go. Go!” He ushered them out brusquely with a push of his hands. Clark exhaled in painful relief.
Clark led the way through the bullpen, moving purposefully and quickly, seeming to barely control his haste. As Lois grabbed her purse from her desk along the way, she took a quick look at Richard in his office. He didn’t seem to notice them; he seemed to be intensely focused on his computer monitor, hard at work. But she couldn’t spare another thought for him…
..because Clark was already racing for the stairwell, Jimmy and Lois panting to catch up. By the time he was hailing a taxi, Lois began to worry. Was Clark going to actually ride with them all the way there, especially when he was needed so quickly? She started to open her mouth to make up an excuse…
“Oh, darn it!” Clark said mildly.
The cab came to a halt in front of them. “What?” Jimmy asked, as he joined them, panting and holding his side.
He shifted from foot to foot, looking embarrassed. “I wanted to take along my notes on our investigation, see if we can’t make any connections between this disaster and one at the Harris Building earlier this week…”
“Yeah, go, Clark,” she encouraged. “We’ll meet you there.” Lois slid into the backseat, nearly dragging Jimmy in with her before he could offer to wait for Clark. She waved goodbye perfunctorily, trying to behave as she had a million times before. “West 58th Street, please,” she directed. “And hurry.”
“Gonna take us a while, lady,” the cabbie told them, pulling into the street. “Didn’t you hear? Some big office building, Thorne Tower, just collapsed over there.”
She barely resisted the urge to say, That’s why we’re going there, Einstein. But she’d learned early in her career not to antagonize taxi drivers, and if they were all going to be stuck in this car for a while, anyway… She gestured toward his radio, where a news station was playing at a low volume. “Could you turn that up, please?”
- - - - -
As Lois surveyed the devastation, she felt numb. Two paramedics passed close by them, bearing a stretcher between them. A sheet was covering the injured body, but a bloodied hand dangled limply over the edge… All around them, the air was filled with the sound of sirens, shouts and wails. This collapse was far worse than the one at the Harris Building earlier in the week. The disorientation she had felt earlier was totally gone. This was real, painful and raw.
It had taken their cab over an hour to get them close enough to even walk – traffic was hopelessly snarled in all directions. Their cabbie let them out at the last possible corner and made a quick U-turn. He obviously had no desire to be trapped there all day.
Fortunately, the authorities let the reporter and photographer through with very little hassle. They stayed out of the way of the EMTs and firefighters who were desperately searching for survivors. The building looked as if it had imploded from the inside – and now was a smoking pile of rubble, several stories high.
“I wonder if Clark will be able to get through all the traffic,” Jimmy commented, snapping another photo.
Lois noticed a red and blue blur out of the corner of her eye. “I think he’ll do the best he can.”
Superman’s form came to a rapid stop, and he seemed to scan beneath the rubble, looking for someone trapped there. Her gaze was naturally drawn to him. She had never been able to do anything but stare at his effortless grace since the first moment he had plucked her from the sky, saving her from an ignominious death.
He suddenly plunged into the jagged debris, tunneling downward at incredible speed. Moments later, he emerged, tenderly cradling the unconscious body of a young secretary, barely alive. Lois knew Superman was probably the only chance the trapped survivors had. It would have taken days for a normal rescue team to search the ruins of the building to find everyone trapped in the tiny air pockets created by the collapse.
As she watched him go into the depths of the destruction over and over again, Lois felt a fresh sense of amazement. She felt pride and anxious anticipation. But strangely, when she looked only at the costumed hero, she didn't feel the giddy infatuation she once had.
Lois did a mental double take. The revelation took her breath away, and she sank to the ground under its weight. She studied him again in her mind. Had she only loved the ideal of Superman in some sort of visceral way?
Her heart raced at what her mind was showing her. It was only now that she could see the man behind the hero, and conversely, the hero behind the man that she felt this passion, this yearning... Whether he was wearing the shield-emblazoned uniform, or the drab three-piece suit, his mission of truth and justice was the same, wasn't it? Her mind was spinning now. Could it be that once and for all she had fallen in love with the complete package?
The sight of bleeding victims and screams from family members newly arrived at the scene shook her from inner thoughts back to professional reality.
But the thoughts lingered. Superman, in his red cape and boots, was a new person to her. She had seen past the costume today and seen the man she loved – truly loved. Lois chuckled softly and shook her head. So, Lois, she said silently to herself. It took Clark Kent finally to get you over Superman!
She turned away from the sight, knowing he would catch up with them after he had saved as many people as possible. Her job was to get a few interviews, discover what she could about how it had happened…
A few hours later, her recorder was filled to capacity; Jimmy had gone through several rolls of film as well as a memory card. Lois hadn’t seen Clark for several minutes. She was about to search for him again, when she felt a tap on her shoulder.
Whirling on him in startlement, Lois put a hand to her chest. “Clark! There you are! What took you so long?”
He shrugged apologetically, covering his distress over the tragedy well. “The traffic was just terrible, you know? And then I had to come in from the opposite direction, and the blockades are just everywhere…”
Lois nodded, trying to keep an annoyed expression on her face for Jimmy’s benefit. “And what was wrong with your cell phone this time?”
“Well, Lois… um… the lines were all tied up. I tried… I really did…” He shifted nervously.
“That’s okay, Clark,” Jimmy consoled, trying to ease her wrath. It was sweet, if actually unnecessary. “We got plenty for Mr. White. I talked to one of my buddies who’s a volunteer firefighter. He said Superman rescued over fifty people today. Did you find those notes you went back for?”
Interested, she turned back to Clark. How would he explain this?
To her surprise, he opened his shoulder bag and pulled out the file. “Here it is… but there’s no mention of Thorne Tower in any of the research we’ve done.” He took out the list of properties they had compiled. “I couldn’t take the time to research the building’s original contractor… I—I just took off as soon as I could.”
“Maybe we can ask around here.” But Lois really wanted to talk to Clark alone, and she couldn’t do that with Jimmy around. “Jimmy, why don’t you head back to the Planet with those photos? We can finish up and meet with you after lunch.”
Jimmy glanced at his watch, and jumped. “Oh, my gosh! I didn’t realize it was past noon! I’ve got a meeting at one o’clock!” He tripped over his feet and stumbled backward and away, calling over his shoulder as he left. “See you guys later!”
“Well, he was easier to get rid of than I expected…” Lois commented as they watched the photographer break into a sprint for the subway station. She placed a hand on Clark’s arm. “You did good work back there.” She could feel his pleasant warmth radiating into her palm, and kept her hand there a little longer than necessary.
His voice shook as he answered her. “Thank you. There were a lot of people buried under the rubble. Thank God I was able to get here in time to save most of them…” His eyes grew haunted, probably thinking about the ones he had not been able to save.
She gave his arm a comforting squeeze, and he smiled down at her gratefully. How she wanted to take him in her arms right then and there!
“So… Do you think Thorne Tower could be related to Mitchener or L & V in any way?”
Clark’s eyes drifted upward, as if he were recalling something. “Just a moment…” He was quiet for a few more moments, and then shook his head. “No. There was no record of Thorne Tower in the files I scanned the other day.”
Wow. How nice it would be to have eidetic memory…
“But I’m certain that the same concrete mix was used in the construction of this building, too. The chemical composition is almost identical, although this building seems older.” Clark turned away from her, eyes moving across the face of the building. Then he began to walk rapidly, climbing over the rubble without so much as an explanation. Lois followed him awkwardly, wishing she had hiking boots on.
He stopped about fifty feet from the sidewalk, gazing downward. “Hey!” she chided when she drew near. “Spare a thought for the less talented…”
But he was intensely focused on something invisible to her human eyes. Breaking his gaze and checking cautiously to either side of them, he suddenly bent down and lifted a large, heavy section of wall to pull something from underneath – some sort of large marble plaque. Blowing off the dust, he showed it to her. It read:
Thorne Tower. Designed and constructed by Ottman Enterprises, 1994.
Lois and Clark shared a gaze of complete bewilderment. If L & V Construction had been established in 2004, how could Mitchener or his company be involved in this collapse?Next: Chapter 26: Giving