Chapter 27: Tension
Lois had to fight a rising tide of panic as her eyes locked with Richard’s across the newsroom. Why is he looking at us? Has he figured it out? Has he seen what I didn’t for years? Perry seemed just as focused on them, eyebrows lowered in… Was that suspicion? Consternation? Judgment?
The moment seemed to stretch interminably. Lois felt trapped by their gazes, unable to think, to move.
Beside her, Clark smiled and waved goofily at them, lifting the lacquer container. He raised his eyebrows, tilted his head, and pointed into the box as if to say ‘Want some?’ Perry held up a hand to decline – her ex-fiancé simply shook his head, and turned back to his uncle. Clark gave a little shrug and dug back into his food.
Watching him, Lois was astonished and impressed at the same time. Suddenly a flash of memory – she wouldn’t exactly call it déjà vu – hit her:
Richard leaned over conspiratorially. “Lois… how tall would you say Clark is?”
Lois looked over at where Clark was standing, examining the contents of a file box in his arms. “6′3″, 6′4″…”
“About two hundred, two fifteen pounds?”
She looked again. Clark turned coincidentally in their direction, saw them gazing his way, and gave them a goofy wave. Both Richard and Lois snickered, embarrassed at even considering the idea that Clark might be Superman.
Effortlessly, Clark had used his non-threatening persona to throw them off the scent. It had worked like a charm on her. In retrospect, it seemed perfectly obvious that Clark had been listening in on that conversation.
She broke herself out of her reverie. “You’re so good at that,” she marveled quietly.
He swallowed another roll. “Years of practice.” He picked around in the box for his next selection. “Believe me, I had plenty of close calls growing up…” As unconcerned as he outwardly seemed now, eating his sushi, she could still sense him continue to focus his hearing on the editor-in-chief’s office.
“What are they saying?” she whispered, anxiously, her heart rate beginning to climb again.
He paused a moment, turning his back to the men before starting to speak. “Lois seems to be handling the break up well,” Clark reported in a slightly gruff voice – remarkably, it was Perry’s voice, inflection and all.
Lois winced painfully, as Clark gave her a commiserating glance. She shifted her position to see past Clark into the office. Richard was leaning back into his chair, sagging a little.
“Yes.” Clark added a little sigh to the slightly higher tone of Richard’s voice. “It was her decision, after all.”
Lois wished she could have heard what Richard had originally told his uncle about them this morning. He had promised he wouldn’t say anything about Superman, and she trusted him to keep his word… but Perry was an old pro. How long, she wondered apprehensively, would it take him to put two and two together, especially if Richard asked him just the right questions?
“Again, I’m sorry, son…” Clark added a regretful note to Perry’s voice. “She’s got a major story to write anyway. Can’t afford to have one of my top reporters working at less than full capacity right now.”
Lois grimaced. “I’d rather avoid another tongue-lashing like the one we got this morning,” she muttered to Clark, trying to distract herself from the thrumming of her heartbeat in her ears. “I hope the story we do on the building collapse will buy us a little more time on the construction investigation…”
Frowning, Clark held up a hand to halt her thoughts. “Richard is asking Perry again about Zod…” His demeanor changed a little to reflect Richard’s as he continued to report. “…I remember seeing it on the news in the European bureau office, but I was out of the country, so it’s all a little fuzzy. So you’re saying that Superman was just… nowhere for several days? He allowed these aliens to basically take over the country?”
Clark shifted uncomfortably in his chair, and Lois's eyes widened as he continued. “The president made an urgent plea on television for Superman to help…everyone was frantic. My one source for ‘all things Superman’ was out on assignment with Clark – and no one could reach her.” She saw Perry shake his head, remembering.
“Wait. So Lois was nowhere to be found either? What assignment were they on?” Clark’s version of Richard’s voice was sharp with curiosity.
Through the window, Perry waved a hand in dismissal. “I don’t even remember. Some puff piece. Once those aliens arrived, they pretty much took over all the news for a while.”
Perry suddenly straightened up and his palm smacked his forehead. Milliseconds later, Clark was continuing his recitation. “Wait a minute… now I remember. I sent the two of them to Niagara Falls to cover that honeymoon racket… and Lois came back days later… no story… no Superman info… zilch.” Eyes narrowed in concentration, Clark harrumphed in perfect imitation of Perry. “And after the paper paid for the whole trip… I was going to rake her over the coals for it, but she seemed so out-of-sorts…” This reminder from Perry of that time, caused a small flash of pain – remembering the fear that she was losing him, the guilt of the knowledge that their ‘time away’ had left the world so exposed to madness…
“She came back without Clark?” Clark’s imitation of Richard sounded nonchalant, but the words caused an icy shiver to run through her body. Seeing this, Clark took her hand in a warm and gentle clasp under the desk, out of sight.
“Come to think of it… yes. I never really thought of that before. Clark didn’t return from Niagara until after the whole mess was over.” Clark stiffened slightly in his chair as he repeated this. But doggedly he went on: “Lois was always running off on her own… still does that, or have you forgotten?” She could almost hear the acerbic chuckle in Perry's voice, despite the fact that Clark's tense face looked anything but amused.
The back of Richard’s head was all Lois could make out through the glass. She exhaled audibly, wishing desperately that she could see his expression at hearing that remark somehow. Throwing her a sympathetic glance, Clark resumed in the lighter voice he had been using for Richard: “You said she seemed… not herself?”
“Well, she was still Lois, of course, full of rapid-fire questions and nervous energy, but also… more subdued and… worried? She couldn't keep still for a moment, sneaking glances at the television monitors, and out at the sky…”
Secretly taking her hand again, Clark suddenly gave her a deep look full of regretful compassion. Lois looked down at their combined hands and whispered, “I was so worried about you. I didn’t know if I would ever see you again… either as Clark or you-know-who.” He sighed heavily, lowering his eyes. But I didn’t realize that Perry noticed how obviously upset I was… Lois shook her head and looked back through the office window. Richard was holding some sort of printout in his hands. “I’m sorry, is Richard reading something now?”
He listened for a moment. “It seems to be the article we turned in after…um… Superman defeated General Zod and his cohorts…” Clark’s voice changed from its normal tone again: “…sounds like Lois was kidnapped… but there’s nothing in here about where they took her or how Superman defeated the Kryptonian criminals…”
“No, it would have been a front-page exclusive, too! I could never get that out of her. I think she even kept it from the police.” Clark’s tone softened and she heard a warmth and concern that few ever did from Perry White, even filtered through Clark’s astounding super-hearing. “Something about what happened really shook her up, Richard. She told me she was just protecting Superman… but I suspect it was more than that.”
Richard leaned over, posture very interested. “Oh?” Lois gasped, quickly biting it back.
“It was the weirdest thing…I asked her again about it a few days later… and she acted like she didn’t know what I was talking about… I guess everyone deals with trauma in their own way.”
Clark gave her another look of anguished regret. She dropped her eyes, overcome with contradictory emotions, including a sympathy about the memory wipe that she never expected to feel. Once again, his rash decision is coming back to bite him in the…
Her thoughts were interrupted as Clark continued: “How long after that did Superman leave?”
“A couple weeks, a month maybe… I don’t really know. It was about the time you came to work here, wasn’t it? You could probably look that up in the archives yourself, son.”
Suddenly Clark’s face whitened in alarm. He repeated in a shaky voice, “Why are you so interested in this anyway?” For a split second, Lois and Clark stared at each other with identical expressions of wide-eyed terror before he bolted up from his chair and rushed over to the editor-in-chief’s office at blinding, if not super, speed.
“Uh, Ch—Chief!” Clark stammered in a panicked voice, poking his head through the glass door. Lois scrambled to her feet, following as quickly as she could behind him, her heart racing.
Perry and Richard turned toward him with an expression of annoyance. “What?” Perry barked, probably more at the use of the hated nickname than the interruption.
“We—we have news… a—about…” Lois could see the wheels turning frantically behind his oversized lenses. Luckily, his stumbling was not out of character for what they were used to…
Arriving breathlessly, Lois jumped in. “We got an interview with Superman!” she said excitedly. Out of the corner of her eye, she registered Richard’s flinch.
“Really?” Perry leaned over, a spark of keen interest leaping into his eyes. Richard’s head dropped slightly, and neither man saw Clark’s eyes go a smidgen wider at her announcement. Lois didn't miss his instantly controlled reaction, though, flicking a hasty sidelong at him. “Is he going to give us an exclusive about his recovery? I want details… not the bare sound-bites the news stations have squeezed out of him…”
It was Clark’s turn to flinch.
“No, no…” Lois replied firmly, quickly. “Perry, it’s not going to be that kind of interview.” Perry’s face fell, and before he could argue, she plunged on. “After the catastrophe this morning with a second post-earthquake collapse, he’s gravely concerned about the city’s safety.” Lois stumbled ahead with the idea she’d had in the elevator, even though she hadn’t yet run it by Clark… “He wants to work with us to find out which other properties in Metropolis are in danger – to warn people before another disaster can occur.”
Perry’s disappointment quickly turned to excitement. “Lane, Kent – if you’re right about there being some sort of deeper conspiracy here… with Superman to back it up… I can just see the headlines now: Superman Uncovers Construction Scandal! Countless Lives Saved!”
Richard suddenly stood, skirting behind Clark to leave the room. “Excuse me, Perry, I think I’ll get back to work now. Thanks for your insights.” Richard met her eyes for one dramatic instant. Lois felt shaken to the core at the depth of the misery there, before he hurried out of the office.
“Sure, sure. Any time, Richard.” Already forgetting him, Perry turned away from his departing nephew to speak to his reporters urgently. “How does Superman intend to help?”
Nervously, Lois watched Richard return to his desk out of the corner of her eye, noting the dispirited slump of his shoulders somewhere in recesses of her brain. “We’re going to narrow down a list of the potentially at-risk properties associated with the two companies involved. He’ll do a series of flyovers, scanning the buildings for the same sort of structural flaws he’s noted in the two collapses this week.” Lois caught Clark watching her with a gleam of admiration in his bright eyes.
Clark finally found his voice. “Superman seemed extremely upset by the disaster. He reported a body count of at least 360 deaths.”
Perry let out a low whistle, and Lois caught her breath. She had no idea it had been that high…
Clark went on gravely. “He hopes our input will make his search much more effective, and give him that much more time to prevent any further loss of life.”
Perry beamed proudly at them, another thing few ever saw around the office. “I hate to admit it, Lane, Kent, but I’m impressed. Really impressed. I’m sorry I accused the two of you of being off your game this morning.” The editor-in-chief turned toward the windows, thinking. “Now this is the kind of exclusive I like to see… The Daily Planet and Superman…working together!”
Lois shared a secretive smile with Clark before agreeing. “Lane, Kent and Superman. We make a good team.”
Perry swiveled back around. “A damn fine team! Now, get back to work – you get that list to him ASAP!” he ordered brusquely, once again all business.
As they slipped out of the office, Lois chanced a glance over her shoulder. Richard was glued to his computer monitor, making notes on a pad of paper. He could be working on anything… an assignment for the paper… or his more personal vendetta. Her stomach clenched in fear. We’re not out of the woods with him yet…
She suddenly felt Clark’s warm breath in her ear. “Good save, there, Lois.” Clark briefly gave her shoulder an affectionate squeeze before moving a cordial distance away.
“Thanks. I had planned to suggest that to you first before approaching Perry…” she shrugged apologetically.
“No matter. It was brilliant.” The admiration that had barely glimmered there in the presence of witnesses was now shining full-force from his eyes.
Lois felt a little giddy at his approval, a reaction that would have felt strange only days ago. But his looks, his too brief touches, his constant presence… it was almost too much. And even as she was inundated with these whirling emotions again for the millionth time today, she felt a prickle at the back of her neck. She was almost afraid to turn around and see Richard staring at them – even if he wasn’t at all. The threat of his discovering everything haunted her like a ghost behind her shoulder.
She shivered and sat down quickly, keeping her back to Richard, gesturing for Clark to take the chair facing Richard’s office. Clark was a far better actor than she was anyway, and if needed, he would have a direct line of sight for whatever Richard was up to.
“I know that you probably felt bad about doing it before… but I’m surprised you haven’t taken advantage of your… uh… ‘unique relationship with Superman’ more often,” Lois commented quietly, beginning to shuffle through her notes.
Clark looked down shyly.
“I know you’ve used your abilities to help you out in a pinch… and your presence at various crises to write articles… but here you have a chance to combine that perceptive mind, those excellent writing skills and your ‘super’ personality to do the most good.” Just as he had done earlier, she touched his hand gently beneath the desk, knowing she wouldn’t be seen. “Wouldn’t it be nice to stop something before it happened every once in a while? Instead of just reacting to it?”
Clark nodded, eyes closing. “I should have let you in on the secret years ago… all this wasted time…”
Lois pinched him gently and teased, eyes flashing, “Yes, or trusted me to keep it when I did know...” He gave her such a remorseful look that she couldn’t keep him on the hot seat for long. Besides, they had a lot of tedious research ahead of them. Lois reached for her reading glasses and placed them on her nose as she called up the files on the computer. “Now, what we need to look for first are other properties handled by L & V and Ottman, as well as checking into the other companies whose buildings collapsed during the initial quake…”
They spent a long afternoon going through each of the companies’ histories. Lois was grateful for the distraction provided by the painstaking work, since she continued to feel, rightly or wrongly, as though Richard was keeping them under close surveillance. L & V was their first priority, and easier to track, since the company had only been in business for the last two years. A surprising number of new or renovated buildings in the business district had been handled by the company, but it was still a short list in comparison to some of the other more established building companies.
Ottman Enterprises was a different story. They had been in business for a couple of decades, and the number of their structures that Lois and Clark had to sift through was considerably higher. Oddly though, almost none of the batch of construction projects built since Thorne Tower had fallen during the quake, though a few built before 1994 had suffered severe damage, with a few scheduled for demolition.
Lois turned toward Clark with an expression of puzzlement. “So what is the connection? What could have changed?” She tapped a pencil against her mouth, and studied the information on the screen again, trying to make sense of it. “If we only had access to their records…”
Before she could draw another breath, he was gone without even a rustle of paper to mark his exit. Well, that’s convenient… she thought with a small smile hovering on her lips. Or was there an emergency he had to attend to?
Lois shrugged mentally. Whatever he was doing, she could handle compiling the last of the possibilities herself. They had made as much progress as they were going to without digging into confidential files at each affected company…
A half an hour later, the prickle returned, and without Clark’s calming presence, her stomach knotted up even further. Without turning her head, Lois dared to peer around the edge of her black frames… to see Richard gazing steadily in her direction again, his face inscrutable from across the room. For one heart-stopping moment, their gazes met and held, before Lois’ eyes shifted quickly back to her computer. Oh, Clark… she thought despairingly, fighting back the tears that threatened to fall, please let your errand be finished soon…
It was almost as if he had heard her silent plea. The delicious smell of fresh roasted coffee assaulted her nostrils, and see turned eagerly to Clark, a frothy cappuccino in hand. “I hope this is more your style than lunch was…”
Lois accepted it with a grateful smile and took a long sip. Exactly how she liked it… Clark had been even better at noticing these things than Richard. “Perfect,” she breathed, willing herself to relax. “So, where did you go?”
“I paid Ottman Enterprises a quick visit,” Clark said in a low voice, studying her face closely. “And from a scan of their records, it seems like the only change before and after the construction of Thorne Tower was one subcontractor: Robinson and Sons. About a year later, the company was no longer used in any of Ottman’s projects.”
“They poured the concrete for Thorne Tower?”
“Yes.” A pleased grin began to dawn on his face.
“And L & V used them in the buildings which collapsed?”
Clark nodded, the smile growing wider.
“Ding-dong! We have a winner,” Lois said triumphantly. But a sharp pain of anxiety from her gut suddenly caused her to groan.
“What’s wrong?” Clark asked in immediate concern.
Lois took a deep breath in an attempt to calm her nerves. “Nothing. Just hungry, I guess.” He didn’t need her worries on top of everything else he was dealing with right now.
Clark gave her a measuring look. “Lois, I know there’s something. Your heart rate has been quite elevated all afternoon, and it just got even faster a few minutes ago.” He looked over her, pointing out other physical symptoms of her nervousness. “Your back and shoulder muscles are as tense as I’ve ever seen them, and all your stomach muscles seem to be clenching—”
“Okay!” she whispered fiercely. “I’m all on edge, wondering what Richard knows, what he’s figuring out, what he’ll do…” She threw up her hands in frustration. “But what can we do about it, really?”
Clark reached for her hands and gripped them tightly. “There is something we can do, Lois.” His face and posture took on the determined bearing he wore as Superman, and his voice lowered to its heroic timbre. “I’ve been thinking over your comments earlier, about our choices.”
“What are you saying?” Lois threw a frantic glance over her shoulder. What if Richard were watching them this very instant?
He released her hands. “Lois, I know you. Could you really deal with this kind of tension for months?”
Heart pounding, she dropped her eyes from his piercingly blue ones, almost afraid to speak.
“Even though we have to be on guard, I don't want our…family to be hemmed in by lies any more than necessary.” His voice strengthened as he spoke. “And I want to be able to show my love for you in public as much as you want to.” He gently tilted her chin, so she would look again into his deep blue eyes. “I know for a fact, you would never have shared your life, even for a few days, let alone five years with a man who wasn’t deserving of the utmost trust.”
Her breath caught in her throat as she looked back up at him, a faint hope stealing into her heart in the midst of all the fear.
“He deserves closure… and the truth. How could he continue to be truly involved in Jason’s life without it?”
Startled by his generosity, Lois was still unable to utter a word. Clark rose and calmly strode over to Richard’s office. She watched Richard look up distractedly from his computer screen and heard him say, “Yes, Clark?”
Clark didn’t bother to raise the pitch of his voice at all as he asked authoritatively, “Richard, could I talk to you for a few minutes?”