"Hey, weren't you with that photographer?" the cabby asked. He was an old fellow in a knit cap that he had pulled below his ears. His nylon jacket was dingy and frayed around the cuffs, and his big hands looked raw on the wheel as he drove at a prudent speed, continuing to steal looks at his passenger in the rearview mirror.
"Yes," Louis Lane admitted with a sigh, and had to suffer through another interrogation. He didn't want to alienate anyone, envisioning in a moment of panic a cabby who'd transported him suddenly being besieged by reporters, a cabby on the evening news saying how Louis Lane, the reporter who had been in the Madison Metropole with that photographer, had said he hated Frank Borden and was taking out a contract on his life.
He wanted to be home. His skinned knuckle was still seeping, and he sucked it and then blotted it with a handkerchief. He wanted to have that article done and on the stands in time to counter what they'd be saying about him.
He sat in the cab outlining on his notepad the major points of his story, the diagram he wanted the staff artists to come up with --- better a diagram than a photograph with something as technical as why a building stood or failed to stand.
There were families --- Billy's was one --- which had been vastly disturbed by the news that the hospital wing Billy Anderson and a lot of the other survivors were in had been built by the same architect.
Doubt like that was added stress those families didn't need, and one family, so Billy's mother had said, had gone so far as to insist a very sick man, not even connected with the tragedy, be moved to another hospital.
The doctors weren't arguing, apparently: it was so easy to transfer anxiety from something one couldn't do anything about onto some other issue one could do something about.
And almost before the dust had settled, lawyers had closed in, looking for deep pockets. The Premier hotel chain was a sure target for lawsuits. Harold Cross was.
The question was what a prospective jury might think; and hasty articles implying there might have been a design flaw weren't going to help the process of justice. Words settled into some mentalities like concrete, and once the buzz of accusation had started, some people wouldn't back off a position they'd loudly taken, not if a choir of angels showed up to prove the contrary.
If someone had wanted to get Premier, or Cross, or both, the economic damages could be astronomical. There were ways to make twelve ordinary citizens into hit men: a lawsuit for damages now wasn't going to run on logic alone.
And it shouldn't happen to Harold Cross, if it wasn't his fault; it shouldn't happen to Premier and its employees and its stockholders, but it would, and mom-and-pop investors were going to bear the worst of it, as they already had, when Premier's stock went down. The list of economic casualties was already considerable: he hadn't asked Art, at the Business and Financial desk, what had happened to Premier's stock the day of the disaster and after, but he could guess.
Cross & Associates, on the other hand, was a privately held corporation. It was going to be all Harold Cross' loss if he was sued. As he would be. He stood to lose his business and his employees and suppliers would lose him, and Metropolis would lose a creative force that, along with Lexcorp, had helped shape the downtown skyline.
Without Cross, it would be Lexcorp, whose tower already dominated the skyline and reminded everyone of its creator.
Cross' offices were beautiful. But he'd lay odds Cross didn't own that building or the office park in which it stood. Lexcorp's skyscraper was Lexcorp's property, all that rent, all that prime downtown square footage.
Ask where the money was, ask who was the powerhouse in Metropolis's economy, and who was a major employer, and who could move corrupt officials wherever they existed. And ask again what kind of economic damage might be done to ordinary folk if Lexcorp suffered another major hit to its reputation.
But he'd bet that Lexcorp stockholders had taken sharp notice when the Star article had linked Lexcorp to a lawsuit claiming contract violations on the part of Premier, and Lexcorp's allegation, in print, that the Cross design was flawed.
That was a thought.
He'd bet that it hadn't hurt Lexcorp stock. In fact, and granted that Lex Luthor was no longer the CEO, that news, prominently carried by Lexcorp's subsidiary, LNN, might well have improved the value of Lexcorp stock. Why, just ask LNN: Lexcorp in that lawsuit had been the voice in the wilderness saying that the hotel would be unsafe.
Now Lexcorp was right, wasn't it? Lexcorp had been proven right.
Never mind that Lex herself had been presumed dead and disgraced, and then alive and disgraced --- Lexcorp wasn't Lex Luthor. It was a large corporation with fingers in a lot of pies, and a value apart from Lex's rise and fall.
The public perception that Lexcorp's engineering advice could have prevented the disaster, and that the hotel chain and the court had made a serious mistake in judgment, wouldn't hurt Lexcorp at all. But it would hurt Premier very badly when the damage and wrongful death suits hit the court.
It would definitely hurt Harold Cross --- economically and personally. Angry crackpots calling his house at night. Lawsuits. Cross could go under, financially.
If Cross went under, that would leave Lexcorp alone, towering over Metropolis not only physically, but in terms of contracts and profits.
A lone Planet reporter might be building his own skyscraper of attenuated logic, but there weren't that many contractors of a size to rival Lexcorp and Cross. There weren't that many companies that could do what those two companies could do --- set their stamp on the Metropolis skyline.
Motive, if there was some deliberate flaw introduced into the construction?
Motive was easy. Who stood to benefit was very evident. The method? In a business like Lexcorp's construction arm, there were engineers, workers, all sorts of people who might have been simultaneously on two payrolls, Lexcorp and Cross & Associates'.
Lex, as he'd come to know, had never wanted for muscle and meanness to carry out her orders. If there'd been some flaw in the concrete, say, or if maybe the dimension hadn't been what they planned...
You could put in more or less gravel than there ought to be when you were pouring concrete, and what would result? He didn't know. He had to ask. He had a suspicion it wouldn't improve the quality at all. You walked along the boarded-up construction sites, and you mostly cursed the nuisance or worried about catching a heel in the cracks of the plywood walks. As Claire had done on several occasions on the frontage of the Madison during its construction as they walked to and from lunch.
But wouldn't somebody see it if the newly poured concrete showed faults? Not if it was sunk deep in the dirt, not if you never saw anything but the top.
Cross had hired a minor talent, William Smalley, when the project overburdened his office; and Smalley had turned on Cross in testimony. That was one man who might have been on two payrolls.
What if there were another person drawing double pay, not an architect, but somebody in the actual construction?
He really, really wanted to talk to the investigators.
And he would, but this afternoon...
The cab rounded the corner onto Jefferson, and there was the Planet.
And the horde.
It was worse. There were demonstrators with placards.
He fished for the requisite fare.
"You sure you want to go there? the cabby asked. "You got another door?"
There were doors in the alley, but not ones for alley access: they only opened from the inside. "Just pull up as close to the door as you can." He prayed for traffic to move, so he could get out and inside before questions got organized. He handed the cabby the fare and a generous tip. "Keep the change. Just get me --- God! Don't hit anyone!"
A placard filled the window. It said WOMEN FOR EQUALITY. Another said NO DOUBLE STANDARD. Another was NO NUKES and there was TAXPAYERS AGAINST FRAUD.
"Bargain day on signs," Louis said, shaken from the lurch of the cab. He got out as cameras tried to evade placards and focus on him and as placard bearers tried to get their message in front of the cameras. He thought bitterly of taking a roundhouse swing with his notepad, but that wouldn't do. It wouldn't do at all.
But it was so tempting.
"Mr. Lane!" vied with "Louis! Over here!" from voices he knew, other journalists who, at the moment, weren't his close friends.
"What do you say about Lex Luthor?" someone shouted as he pushed his way to the door.
"Why are you dodging questions?" another yelled, as a placard crashed into his face. He fended it off with his sore hand, and then Charles, bless him, had the door open, and cops or guards from some other source helped him through to the shocking quiet and sanity of the Planet Building lobby.
"Are you all right, Mr. Lane?" Charles asked.
"Yes," he said, and straightened his suit. He was outraged. The men who'd helped him in were standing at the doors, and they were, in fact, hired security. Charles had needed backup. It was entirely outrageous. And expensive.
"Thank you," he said, and marched into the elevator with, in his pocket, the story he hoped would put the Planet ahead of the pack.
Exiting the elevator and entering the Planet's newsroom, Louis Lane started to drop his notepad on his desk, changed his mind and went to put his head into Perry White's office.
"I'm back. I've got an interview with Cross. He sounds on the up-and-up."
Perry's most recent resolution to quit smoking was wavering. He had an unlit cigar, and stuck it in his mouth and took it out again. "How solid?"
"I saw the diagrams. I've got a piece for the art department." He took the photo out of the notepad and laid it on Perry's desk. "I want that pillar there labeled CENTRAL SUPPORT PILLAR. Label that PARKING GARAGE. I'll get you the article in an hour. Hold me a spot."
"Good for you! Good for you!" Perry got up and gave him a hearty slap on the back. "You get out there, you rock and roll with that piece!" He stuck the cigar in his mouth and took it out again. "Where's Kent? Is she with you on this?"
"She will be." He'd put her byline on with his. He owed her that much. If Supergirl hadn't mentioned Claire asking about it and jogging his memory, he never would have followed this lead and gotten the interview. It wasn't as if Cross would have seen her if she'd been with him.
He exited Perry's office and walked toward his desk. Claire wasn't at hers. He wondered where she really was. Was she following up on the same lead, trying to get her own interview with Cross? Or was she following up on Supergirl's activities in Russia? She'd mentioned wanting to do a series of background pieces on the people of the region, how they'd been pushed around by the old regime.
He sat down at his desk and turned on his computer. As he waited for it to boot, he noticed someone had laid a newspaper on the side of Claires desk. The Daily Star. Reaching over, he picked it up and turned it around so he could read it.
Supergirl Claims Other Priorities, a front-page editorial said.
Questioned about her whereabouts during Metropolis's darkest hour, Supergirl claimed she was engaged in the former Soviet Union, raising the question --- in this reporter's mind --- where this city comes in the Girl of Steel's loyalties. It might be objected that charity has no frontiers. We would answer that charity begins at home. It might be objected that free help shouldn't be questioned. We would answer that taxpayer dollars pay the Maid of Might's phone bills and afford her countless other privileges without an accounting made...
It went on, subtly and unsubtly nasty, appealing to distrust, jealousy, isolationism, and coming to a conclusion that didn't quite mention what really set Morgan Edge off: the fact that the Planet got the interviews with Supergirl and the Star didn't.
That was the article the reporters had been wanting his reaction to.
Post-Its and While You Were Outs were a yellow and pink pile. He began to sort through them for time bombs, in advance of settling down to his article, eyeing the two express mailers propped between against the side of the monitor and asking himself if he wanted to get into them.
Jenny arrived beside his desk and quietly slipped a tabloid-format paper into his view. The Whisper: With the headline MY SECRET AFFAIR WITH LEX LUTHOR! in all caps. With pictures from his almost-wedding.
He snatched up the paper.
"It's actually kind of funny..." Jenny began.
He shot her a look that might fry eggs as he started to roll up the tabloid.
"... if you look at it that way," Jenny finished.
"Not likely," he said, taking a swipe at her with the tabloid. She nimbly moved out of range. He shoved the paper back at her. "Find a birdcage. Here's liner."
"Right," she said, still backing away. "Want some coffee?"
She turned and was off, leaving him with the tabloid. He tossed it into the trash and began plowing through the Post-Its.
The League of this, the Society for that, all wanting a statement.
Another message from Nightscape, wanting him on the air. With or without Jenny Olsen. He had no doubt Jenny had received a similar message: come be on our show, with or without Louis Lane.
Others from this and that fund, wanting him to call back, one message saying: Wanting endorsement. Urgent. Disaster Fund.
A While You Were Out from the DA, that somebody was using his photo and Jenny's in a fund-raising purportedly --- and falsely --- for the Madison Disaster Fund.
He set that one aside --- thump! --- for a personal call to the DA. And he thought wistfully of a man in Suicide Slum who'd break arms for fifty bucks. I wonder if Supergirl would do it for me cheaper?
That was a shameful thought.
Bargaining for trouble, he picked up one of the express mailers and checked the sender's name --- a national syndicate. It looked legitimate. He opened it.
It was. We are interested in talking with you regarding a weekly syndicated column...
Wow, was all he could think. And didn't want to think further right now.
He opened the other mailer, seeking distraction from that stunner.
It was from something called Morton R. Wells Productions, and it began:
For combined book-movie rights to your story, Morton R. Wells Productions is willing to discuss an offer of one million dollars, for a novel to be written by Quentin Vardee, whose last book was six weeks at the top of the best-seller lists, plus a major motion picture contingent on novel sales. We urge you not to grant interviews or rights to anyone without contacting us. Please phone us at your earliest convenience at...
A million dollars. Discuss an offer?
A million dollars?
Jenny set the coffee on his desk. He sat stunned. Just stunned. Thinking...
It sure beat the ten thousand from a tabloid reporter trying to bribe him.
It wasn't his story. It belonged to Gene Pratt and Billy Anderson, and the other kids. It belonged to the young woman who'd dug them out.
The young woman in question had returned to his desk. She looked down and saw the letter in his hand. "You got one of those, too, huh?" Jenny asked.
He looked up. "What're you going to do?"
"I already threw it in the trash." She shrugged. "They should write about Billy, not me. You should write it."
He didn't think he would be able to do justice to a novel. Nor was he was he quite ready to throw the letter in the trash; it might make a nice addition to his scrapbook. Setting the letter down, he drew a long, steadying breath and pulled out the keyboard drawer, reminding himself that he worked for the Planet, syndicated or not.
Reminding himself he had a man's reputation in his hands, and in the tape in his pocket. He took the recorder out, set it on his desk, and began to type.
Rejecting the suggestion of flaws in the Madison Hotel design, the architectural firm of Cross & Associates today came forward to state that after reviews of the blueprints and specifications they are convinced that the design was not at fault in the Madison collapse. In an exclusive interview with Harold Cross, architect, the Planet has obtained...
"Hello, Claire," someone said.
He drew in a breath, spun the chair around, and she was there, walking in from the elevator, coat over her arm, looking like she didn't have a care in the world.
He was out of his chair.
"Hi," he said, and snagging her by the arm, took the coat, hung it up, and walked her to the back hall, back by the copy machine.
"What's the matter?" she asked, stumbling a bit in an effort to keep up.
He turned to face her. "Where have you been?"
She stepped back, surprised by the vehemence of his question. "Following up on Supergirl. That dam in Russia..."
"What about that controversy when they were building the Madison? Supergirl said you mentioned it."
"It was just a thought. I've been thinking about it but haven't really gotten started..."
"I've beaten you on this one. But it was your tip that got me started. Okay, listen, you've been legging it around town getting information for me. I'm giving you a shared byline on the Cross article and I've been to see Lex."
"Lex?" She'd nearly shouted the name. She took a calming breath before asking, "Why? Why on earth?"
"Because Lex was suing Harold Cross, who designed the hotel, and she lost. Or it wasn't Lex, it was Lexcorp, but I don't think there's much difference even yet. But I can't prove it."
She held up a hand. "Slow down, slow down."
He did, but not much. "Lexcorp was contracted to build the Madison. But when the truth came out about Lex, they lost the contract and Cross got it."
She lowered her hand. "That's a pretty slim thread. They're two big construction firms."
"But this was the contract Lex lost when she lost her reputation. I don't think she took it well."
"Granted she didn't take it well..." Claire had known Lex longer than he had; they had grown up together in the same small town, before they both found their separate paths to Metropolis. "But why go out there?"
"Because I thought she might know what the center of the controversy was. And she did. She remembered the design, real well. She was scary, Claire."
"I know. And I don't like you going..."
He couldn't pass up the opportunity. "You're not jealous?"
She just glared at him with eyes that were blue, not green. To her, Lex Luthor was not a joking matter.
It wasn't to him, either. "You're right," he said. "It wasn't a good idea."
"Did she threaten you?"
He shook his head. "Quite the opposite. We talked about the hotel. She was distressed when she thought I might have been in it when it went. I had the strangest thought --- that if anybody she hired was responsible --- I might have just killed that man."
Claire let go a slow breath and ran the back of her hand across her forehead, not happy, not at all happy with the news.
"Two people are dead," Louis said. He ticked them off on his fingers. "Monique Simms? Suicide. She covered the Madison lawsuit. William Smalley? Suicide. He came to Cross right at the time they got the Madison job, testified against Cross in the lawsuit Lexcorp brought, and sometime after that --- suicide."
Claire's frown was deeper, and worried. "You have been busy."
"You've been busy. That's what I told Perry. You've been helping me track down details. Shared byline."
"Thanks. I appreciate it."
"... and the media's been tracking me, every breath I take, and they want me to do a syndicated column, and..."
"That's great, Louis."
"... and there's this book and movie deal --- they want to give me a million dollars." He was aware he was stringing things together without sense, and suddenly the whole sum of it seemed surreal to her, even threatening. "Claire! What do I do with a million dollars?"
She didn't answer at once, drawing a deep breath. She let it out slowly, before saying, "You do what you want to."
"I don't know what I want." He'd had a brief taste of that life when he'd been dating Lex.
But then he remembered that tabloid. Lex. MY SECRET AFFAIR WITH LEX LUTHOR! A cold chill hit him. That was what they'd go for. And he knew, in the friendship of this woman looking at him, waiting for him to come to his senses, he had something beyond all estimation.
Jenny had done the right thing with her letter.
"Oh, what's a million?" he said and, still shaky from the thought of blowing a million dollars, found Claire in his arms, her smiling face looking up at his.
Claire wasn't sure her feet were on the floor as her mouth reached toward his, when someone cleared his throat slightly, murmured, " 'Scuse me, I've got a copy to run."
Possibly Nathan the restaurant critic hadn't heard the brass band or seen the fireworks, or noticed very much at all of the goings-on. His passion extended mostly to food and wine, and the little gray man in the plain gray coat just never gained a pound or focused on much else.
Nathan went right past them into the copy room.
Claire let go a nervous laugh and squeezed his hand.
Nathan adjusted his bifocals and looked at them from out of the room. "Oh. Claire. Louis. How did you find the restaurant?"
"Missed the reservation," Louis answered. "The hotel, you know."
"Oh. Yes. Of course. It was that night, wasn't it?"
"Suppose we might try again?"
"I could do that, yes, I think I could. Let me see what I can do."
On such a silly protocol, they excused themselves out of the vicinity and walked back up the hall to the general office and the rest of the curious world.
"Sorry," she muttered. "But can you prove anything?"
"No." Had that been the topic? "No." The Madison. Lex in the cell. Barred, and threat. "No, I can't. Just --- it adds up, that's all. She's got motive, she's got all kinds of motive..."
"How did she do it? Who's the contact? Who's the hands and feet and what did they do?"
"Anything's possible with Luthor involved."
"But what can we prove?"
"That no one's safe." He gave an unmeant twitch of the shoulders, a shiver. "That money can get past the guards and wreck people's lives."
"Be careful. I don't like you talking to her. I don't like you coming to her attention. I'm sorry if it sounds like I'm jealous, but that's the truth."
"I don't think I ever leave her attention," Louis said somberly, "and that's the truth."
They reached their desks and he continued past. "As long as I'm up for it, I'm going downstairs and talk to the press. Then I'm going to come back up here and write my article, and then you and I are going to dinner. How's that?"
"Fine." Absolutely nothing wrong with that.
"We've got a civic function tomorrow night." He cleared his throat. "Jenny and I have a civic function tomorrow night."
Claire felt her heart miss a beat. Louis and Jenny. The two of them were spending a lot of time together, after being thrown together in that underground garage.
Louis was still talking, "... schedule for the week. And then we're going to take a day off and go to Nathan's restaurant."
Nathan's restaurant? It took Claire a second to make the connection. The Twelve Tables. Her heart missed another beat. Louis was going to take Jenny to the Twelve Tables.
"You will come with me, won't you?"
"Me? The Twelve Tables?" Her heart missed yet another beat. He was inviting her, not Jenny. Recovering, she managed a grin. "Can you afford it? You're not a millionaire."
His grin answered hers. "I'll manage somehow."
She was sure he could. After all, he'd been about to take her there when all this started. "What are you going to tell them downstairs?" she asked. "What is there to tell them?"
"Just the day's schedule, just that I'm going to the mayor's fundraiser tomorrow night and I'm writing my article on the Cross statement today, which they can read in the Planet, and the investigation is ongoing. And meanwhile you can figure out where you're going to take me for dinner at five o'clock."
"I can do that." It was the very least she could do for a man who'd just spurned a million-dollar deal.
And a dinner at The Twelve Tables would more than make up for it.
For once, the cabby failed to recognize his passengers. Or if he did recognize Louis Lane, he was keeping quiet in deference to the young woman with him. In any case, the cabby followed Claire Kent's instructions, instructions that ducked down an expressway exit, through the underpass, around a corner, and down the boulevard for eight blocks.
Eddie Lausano had probably painted the murals. Certainly Eddie cooked the pasta, which was good, and Eddie's daughter did the desserts, which were absolutely sinful and used real whipped cream.
No one had said a thing about the hotel. She'd advised Eddie, and there were looks from a couple of the tables, but no one came over, no one interrupted them.
Maybe they would have been better off grabbing a couple of sandwiches at Foggarty's, only a couple of blocks from the Planet, and then heading straight for their respective homes. The food wouldn't have been as good, but it certainly would have been quicker.
But then, they wouldn't have had this dessert.
"We should get you home," Claire said, reaching around her strawberries and whipped cream to pat his injured hand. "Before you fall over."
Louis sighed. Reached across with his other hand to pluck up one of her strawberries and dip it into the whipped cream. "Will you come with me and tuck me in?"
Yes! she wanted to say. Tuck him into bed, tuck herself in right beside him, protect him, keep him safe. "How would that look?" was what she actually said. "On national television, no less."
Neither of them had any doubts that the stakeouts would be in full force outside his apartment once his Cross interview rolled off the Planet presses. Which should have been right about the time they'd been enjoying the pasta primavera.
He sighed again and plunked the strawberry into his open mouth. His mouth closed. His eyes closed almost simultaneously. He was falling asleep in his chair.
Her eyes didn't feel the need of rest, but her mind needed sleep, needed it perhaps as much as any woman's did. From the inside looking out, she never could answer that question.
It was always the question, what was ordinary, what she had in common with everyone else. And in what things she was different.
She kept awake because she had take care of Louis, and only then, in her own apartment, she'd get some rest.
But the food had tasted very, very good. It had filled --- maybe --- a human need.
She paid the modest tab and left a good tip. As much as she longed to take him up in her arms and carry him home the quick and easy way, she knew she couldn't do that. Louis Lane had just finished having dinner with Claire Kent, not with Supergirl. She had Eddie call her a cab instead.
As tired as he was, Louis insisted on seeing Claire to her apartment first. She'd have preferred to see him home, but he would have none of it, the cool air flowing through the open windows of the cab reviving him somewhat.
It didn't revive him enough to make him come upstairs with her and tuck her into her bed, let alone tuck himself in beside her.
She was, at any rate, very glad to get home, to a dim and slightly disorderly apartment, her own --- which was usually in better order, but she'd left in a hurry days ago and thought, at the time, that she'd tidy up when she got home.
She was so mentally weary by the time she opened the door to her apartment that she didn't even consider the clutter. She tossed clothes into the laundry and stepped into the shower --- clear, clean water, and soap, beautiful, plain soap. She enjoyed the feel of it.
And enjoyed not moving fast. And not hearing the rush of the wind. And not being battered by cold rain, but by hot water. As hot as the standard water heater in her apartment could get it.
And not facing any decision more dire than whether to go with Louis to the civic memorial tomorrow night and risk the cameras or stay prudently at home out of the public eye.
Go as a reporter, maybe, with not Jenny but another photographer in tow: she wasn't news if she wasn't near Louis and Jenny, and if she hung back with the other members of the press, she'd get questions from them about Louis, but none about herself so long as she played it all very carefully and didn't get drawn into commenting on the story they would be, like her, assigned there to cover.
It was probably a good idea: she'd feel better if she could at least be near Louis. She was just... anxious about the pressure he was under, about the story he'd begun to uncover. Two people dead, one of whom had been an informant in the lawsuit over the Madison, possibly a plant inside of Cross & Associates, by what Louis had said at dinner; and one who had been uncovering the story. She didn't believe in coincidences when the stakes grew this high.
Louis visiting Lex. That was enough to haunt her as she lay down to rest for the first time in days. He was on a lead and he'd taken measures to investigate that lead. As he'd always do. She had no complaints on that score.
Determination to do a little checking on her own, yes.
Quietly. Not to disturb his story. But...
She shut her eyes and drew a deep breath and chilled down the apartment a little.
Water flowed through her dreams. Water and wind.
And the bright orange flares of explosions.
Grandmother's face, with a bright, impish grin.
The old man giving up his clothes so she could rescue his son from the bandits
The girl with the cat and kittens.
Her young interpreter was trying to tell her something not too urgent, but she wished she knew what it was. It might have something to do with Louis's problem.
But she was above the Caucasus by night, and stars were shining around the snowy peaks as they'd done when Alexander of Macedon, called the Great, had come through Persia, as they'd done when the Huns had swept through to the north, and when the skies had shadowed with metal wings. Up here, it was still the same.
Peaceful, between the storms.
The morning was gray, one of those silken gray days where the clouds seemed to hang just grazing the tops of buildings, where light seeped, rather than shone, down the canyons of downtown.
The yellow police tape was still up at the site. Claire Kent saw that as she walked up to the limit they allowed the public to approach the ruin. So were other colors up, different colors. Ribbons --- yellow ribbons, red-white-and-blue ribbons, and other remembrances tied on the chain link they'd put up to keep the curious out. Ribbons and flowers and pictures protected in plastic. One had a rosary. Another, a child's report card.
The street hadn't reopened. What remained standing of the building was reckoned too unstable and the below-ground area far, far too dangerous to allow people even on the sidewalk next to it.
The Madison wasn't the only damage. Businesses to either side had suffered, not only from falling concrete and subsidence of the sidewalk, and then from the emotional depression that attended the place, but now by the ruling that said the other structures were in danger from the standing walls and couldn't be occupied.
That was information she'd gathered from the Planet's morning edition.
Making a mental note to ask the authorities whether they could use Supergirl's help in bringing down the remainder of the building, Claire walked up to the fence among others who'd come to stand and remember.
But the fence didn't stop her from a closer look. She took off the sunglasses that otherwise, with refraction off the structure of glass itself and the temperature from the surrounding air, bothered her close focus. She sharpened her senses, tuned out the thunderous world of distant traffic and jackhammers and people walking on the street, and probed with all the range of her sight and hearing, down into the shattered concrete and twisted steel, down past the wreckage of cars and girders, and down and down into the depths where the whole thing rested, down to that single pillar around which the whole garage and the structure above had been built.
She found what she thought was that area. It corresponded to the diagram in the newspaper she carried, folded, under her arm.
She found the signature of water and mud, both visually and with her hearing, as the building echoed, to her sensitized ears, with the thrum of Metropolitan traffic.
A lot of mud. It had been raining when the building had caved in, and there'd been that question raised, about the central pillar construction. Even in getting the boy out, where the inverted pyramid of the garage had rested against the earth, Jenny had worked in water. So Louis had said. So he'd written. After surviving all that devastation, Billy Anderson had nearly drowned.
A raindrop hit her. Others dashed across her vision, disturbing the air with large, cold streaks as she stood motionless as the stone itself.
She shortened and enlarged her focus. Mud from footprints had dried on the sidewalk beyond the chain link, in a dusting of powdered glass. A spot of rain hit the dried mud. And another.
Water certainly seemed to have been her curse lately.
Water was going to complicate arrangements for this evening, and maybe reduce attendance at the memorial.
Louis Lane had begged leave from Perry White to work by phone and modem today instead of coming in. Jenny Olsen also wasn't coming in. Letitia Frenk had taken the young photographer under her wing and cajoled an emergency appointment with her own hairdresser and was going to see whether the manicurist could resurrect her damaged nails.
Perry couldn't say no, not today. Not with the karma the pair had gained.
And Louis had gained karma with Perry for his absent partner at the same time, by sharing that Cross article byline: that had made it look as if she'd been in the city all along. Just because Louis believed it didn't make the subterfuge any less troubling.
It meant she'd better read that article really well, and that if there were leads still to follow, she should follow them for him --- justifying that shared byline.
That meant, if she could, finding out why a former colleague who'd reported on the Premier lawsuit was dead, and why a principal figure in that lawsuit had suffered the same impulse to suicide.
That Lex was in a prison literally within sight of all the resources of Lexcorp might be ironic justice; but Claire took very seriously everything Louis had said about that meeting, and took even more seriously that Lex had settled on him as a focus.
That was not a comfortable thought. Lex had shown signs of obsessive behavior before she'd undergone profoundly disturbing experiences. She had never been able to resolve a problem by walking away from a conflict. She'd never been able to dismiss a possible slight. She'd never been able to take no for an answer, not in business, not in her personal life. Not back in Smallville, and not here in Metropolis. Lex had come to more than one setback because she'd offended someone she should have had better sense than to offend, and she then couldn't let the matter go: she had to pursue it, aggravate it, provoke response, which only made her madder.
Lex Luthor was not a woman destined to be loved by those who had to deal with her. That would always limit her: she gained no loyalty --- but then, she could buy certain talent.
Lex had thought she could buy Louis. And he'd not only escaped her, he'd dragged the lure of his presence past her when she was in such humiliating circumstances, behind bars.
And Lex had remained, by Louis's account, in good humor?
Then she was not feeling entirely humiliated. She hadn't shown her nastier side, not once in that interview. So Louis had said.
It would be hard to prove Lex's equanimity if she should visit. She didn't think she'd find Lex in such an expansive, helpful mood at all. And she knew Supergirl most certainly wouldn't,.
No good to go over there, that was a fact. But a little investigation into Lexcorp activities at the moment might be a good thing. Lexcorp said all ties to its former CEO were severed. But she didn't buy it.
Meanwhile, again resorting to the Stratford Hotel with its antique phone booth and comfortable old-fashioned green-vinyl padded seat, she had calls to make, to the President, to the State Department. And one long overdue call to a farm outside Smallville, to let the Kents know that their daughter was fine. She sat there, listening to thunder rumble outside, thinking of Jenny and her emergency hair appointment.
It didn't seem, after everything else, fair.
No, she reported to the State Department, she didn't think the rebels, whoever they had been, would venture back to that area too soon. The region hadn't, in general, known who she was, or why she was there, but she trusted there was a rumor in the mountains regarding one village with a very mean defense.
The ammunition was also out of the picture.
And, possibly by today, the bridge would be a fact the rebels would have to deal with.
But she left that on the lap of the State Department.
And had a solitary lunch in the Stratford's elegant small dining room, thinking to herself that it was going to be next to impossible to get a decent meal tonight. Louis and Jenny would have butterflies, she didn't want to be seen with them since cameras would be following them around. On top of it all, the rain was going to present a challenge for people to get to the Arts Center without a soaking.
It was one job she couldn't quite guarantee, to stop the rain. She was a girl from Krypton, not a goddess.
She went to the lobby and waited for a letup in the downpour which had started outside, one of those events that made cabs scarcer than elephants on Metropolis streets. She found her hiatus and, having her umbrella and a good raincoat, she set out into the elements, thinking that a cab might be easier to find on Jefferson than here.
It wasn't. She didn't really want to go to the Planet, to pretend she knew everything. Reentering that information flow would be easier tomorrow, after she could touch base with Louis.
And Perry, on Louis's assurance, believed she was working for the Planet during her absence from the office.
She narrowly missed snagging a cab. A frail-looking woman beat her.
And her course took her back by the Madison site, which was running with mud, thumping with a sound that hadn't been there before. Pumps, she thought, to move the water that was running down through the high ruins, all that ragged tower of shattered concrete, and collecting below. She could more than imagine the conditions inside the ruin: she'd seen it, and still the workmen kept at it. The lingering operation was the recovery of certain personnel effects from the rubble, and the slow search of experts hired by various lawyers for some hint of flaw or fault. Now and again they brought out a significant piece, evidently, to join a pile of broken furniture.
They hadn't even gotten down to the crushed cars.
A worker was coming out of the chain link gate near her. "Excuse me!" She dug her press credentials out of her purse and waved it at him. "Claire Kent, from the Planet. Anything turning up?"
"Not since days ago," the workman said, and wiped a muddy hand on his coveralls, hardly a mud-free surface. "Nothing much doing, but escorting engineers around. I can't talk about anything."
"I understand," Claire said, and did understand. These were busy, tired workers, not information officers. "What's the sound I hear?" She was sometimes doubtful, asking about subtle sounds, fearful of betraying her abilities. But this was a stranger. And it seemed loud enough that ordinary people might hear it. "Is that a pump?"
"How much does it move?" Reportorial questions. Who, what, when, where, why? Automatic as breathing, and a conversation filler that might loosen more information. She owed Perry a story. Or five or ten stories. She took out the perpetually available notebook and pen from her purse.
"Three hundred gallons a minute."
"What do you think you've moved out, so far?"
"Oh, Lord, I don't know. Maybe a couple or three swimming pools worth. It's a lot."
"Where's the water going?" She didn't see an outlet. But hadn't really looked.
He pointed a grimy hand back at the open manhole. "Down there. There's a hole right to the sewer. Pipe's broke, clean off, but we connected the output down below there, where guys don't have to trip over it."
"The pipe broke?"
"Lady." Clearly he was exasperated with questions, questions, questions. It was cold and probably he was on a short break with a cup of hot coffee as his goal. "Everything down there's broke. There just ain't much intact."
"Is the water a problem to the salvage?"
"Oh, sure, it's a problem. But we'll move the water out. Level's dropping down there pretty fast since we turned the pumps on."
"More rain won't help, will it?"
"What's your name?"
"Wall. Donald Wall."
"You work for the city, Mr. Wall?" There was a city number stencil on the yellow coveralls.
"Parks Department. They got everybody on this duty."
"How many shifts have you worked?"
"Same as everybody. We lost count."
"Thank you, Mr. Wall," Claire said, shutting the notebook and putting it into her purse. "Thank you very much."
It was a story --- a small one, but a good one. A good man, Donald Wall seemed to be. And the pump kept emptying the outpouring of the heavens down into the depths of the ruin by way of the sewer system. She could see the connection under the sidewalk now that she looked for it --- connecting to the main sewer under the street. But --- a fast glance at the pool of water in the ruin confirmed her suspicion --- there was no hint of finishing the job soon.
Three hundred gallons of water a minute? That was a lot of water.
Thunder broke. Rain picked up, and the workman ran for cover. Claire walked on in her quest for a cab, her thoughts preoccupied with images of the muddy terraces in the Caucasus, and the muddy flat through which a river ran.
It seemed as if she couldn't get away from water the last several days.
It seemed she'd been working and working and working and working and the problem kept coming back at her, with different dimensions. The dam. The high valley runoff. The bridge.
She walked on down the street, around to the Planet Building, where reporters staked out the place under a dismal shelter of umbrellas and improbable shelters made of raincoats and ponchos. The cameras weren't so much in evidence.
At least the downpour had cleansed the scene of yesterday's placard-bearing demonstrators. Almost. The guy with the SALVATION placard had finally arrived. He attended trials and demonstrations. He seemed a friendly face, marching in the rain in front of cameras and microphones.
Claire made her way past the marcher and through the stakeout, ignoring their questions about the Cross statement. Once inside the lobby, she almost missed Charles's inevitable hello, being mentally in that high valley.
"Hello," Claire said belatedly, and took the elevator upstairs.
The newsroom was brightly lit, in full motion. "There you are," Perry said to her, and wanted her in the office.
Perry wanted her to cover the event tonight. It wasn't a society report the Planet wanted on this one, but a coverage with, he said, the delicate touch.
"Lane and Olsen have got the recognition coming," he said. "And we don't want to lack class, you know what I mean?" He jabbed an unlit cigar at the autographed portrait of Elvis. "Class. Like the King. Like we were anybody else covering it, but these are our people, you know? I figure you can do it. I know you can."
"Be objective?" She was doubtful. How could she ever be objective about Louis?
She also doubted whether he heard her. He jabbed his cigar in her direction. "I know you'll do fine."
She still wasn't sure. She wasn't sure whether she wanted to be at an event where Louis was going to escorting Jenny.
She liked Jenny, as a friend, as a coworker. But, and last night notwithstanding, Louis and Jenny had been spending a lot of time together. She didn't think there was anything romantic between them --- except in Jenny's mind. Still... she'd nearly lost him once to Lex, and she didn't want to lose him to Jenny.
She told herself it was only because the two of them had been involved in the rescue efforts. If she tried hard, she could almost believe it.
Then she remembered that he was taking her to The Twelve Tables. Claire. Not Jenny.
But before then, she had to write her articles, first the followup on Supergirl's efforts in the Caucasus and then the one on the Madison salvage, small as it was, just a tidbit of news, but fuel for the vast curiosity that drove a story like this, that kept the public hanging on every shred of information, unsatisfied and wanting conclusions and resolutions that might be months away.
Like...why? Why did a major building just fall down? Why was there no warning, no cracks, no sounds that might have advised of a problem developing? The unexpectedness of it was the still-worrisome question, and Louis's article on Cross & Associates had only redirected the concern. If the architectural design wasn't at fault, then what? If the design wasn't flawed, what about the ground underneath? Did the plan miss some hidden fault underlying the city? Had there been an earthquake? Were other buildings in danger? The public didn't feel safe downtown so long as the horror at the Madison had no explanation.
Stones on the road in the Caucasus. Cracks in the dam. Cracks leaking water.
All that rain.
Maybe, she thought, maybe that was the answer. Maybe it was water.
She got up, late as it was, went to the art department, and looked at the original of the artwork that had run in the paper.
That central supporting pillar, set in the bedrock.
All those wavy lines on the charts, that meeting in the tent with the Russians, the charts and maps from Pyatigorsk...
Down on the river bottom, where water and sand had scoured the base from under a bridge piling.
There was a question. There was a serious question. Underground water, possibly groundwater in excess of anything anyone knew was there.
It was 4:17 by her watch.
She had an outfit at the cleaners; it had been there since before the disaster. She wanted to do some talking with Cross, but in the meantime she had to pick up her things she'd left before they went to the Unclaimed section.
Claire wanted to get to the Arts Center without having to resort to high speed. There were just too many people lurking about with cameras. That meant adjusting every schedule to accommodate travel by cab.
She took the elevator down to street level. It was raining buckets outside, at the moment. She couldn't find a cab to the cleaners, and walked, with dogged patience, telling herself what Pa Kent used to tell her, that walking was good for her.
Probably walking was good for the disposition. Possibly it was educational. It was not good for the shoes, and water was running down her neck despite the umbrella.
She picked up her things, done up in plastic bags against the downpour, prepared to trek home through the gray downpour.
A cab appeared like a miracle in the rain, and she flagged it down, gave the cabby the address of her apartment, and settled back for a short ride. The windshield wipers fought hard against the flood that beat against the roof.
She didn't know the time. She looked at her watch, suspecting she was running late, but it still showed 4:17. She didn't know how --- but she'd killed another wristwatch.
The light gray suit --- it was sober enough. Modest black heels, dark stockings. Her biggest handbag, with a camera stuffed inside.
Jenny Olsen straightened her hair, carefully, considering the downpour, and figured the hardiest of the press outside was cursing their luck.
The bell rang. She punched the intercom, heard Louis Lane's cheerful, "Jenny?"
"I'm on my way," she said. "I'll meet you."
She gave Leroy a rub of the ears, snatched her coat and handbag, and went down, quickly, thanks to a ready elevator.
"You look beautiful," Louis said. Louis, possessor of an umbrella and a cab sitting at the curb with the meter running. And decked out in a tux, of all things.
She ducked under the umbrella and ran with Louis to the cab. In the downpour only the hardiest of the reporters shouted questions at them: Do you have a statement on the award?
She called out a cheerful, "Thank you!" and ducked inside the cab, dry and safe. "Thanks, Louis. You're so good to me."
"Nothing but the best," he said, and settled into a comfortable quiet for the duration of the ride downtown, twelve drowned city blocks as the streetlights came on, haloed in the falling rain.
The Arts Center turned up in a patch of twilight green, with its big globes of light shining like so many moons. It seemed a surreal night, the cab hammered by the rain until it ducked down the drive and into the safe, dry parking garage.
Louis got out, Louis paid the fare, and she eased out, protecting her nylons and her coat from wrinkles.
"Did you bring your camera?" he asked.
She patted her handbag. "Right here. Is that the big pillar you're taking about?" She nodded toward the huge center column, around which the ramp spiraled.
"Yes. But..." A stream of cars and limousines was continuing to arrive. The mayor's limo arrived, followed by a couple of horse-drawn carriages.
The elevator was near at hand. Louis snagged Jenny's arm and drew her inside the elevator. He pushed black 6, which was the lowest level.
"From down there, eh?" she asked, a slight quaver in her voice.
He couldn't blame her, he didn't really want to go down there, either. But there was a story somewhere down there. "The design is just like the Madison," he said. "Same architect. I want to get some shots and get up before the cars start getting into the shot."
"Right." She pulled the camera from her handbag and took a deep breath. "I'm ready." She almost managed to sound convincing.
The elevator stopped. The door opened on the stillness of the bottom level of the garage, and the huge pillar that was, essentially, the support for all the structure above. Earth surrounded this inverted pyramid, with a system of small braces helping support this section, which supported everything above. But this was the big one, reinforced with steel, an elegance that held the whole airy glass-and-steel of the Arts Center suspended above it.
Nothing, Louis thought, walking near it, could disturb a structure this solid. And it was solid. The very notion that something this massive could shatter was hard to think of.
But the Madison was evidence that it could.
A small bomb, he asked himself? So meticulously placed that it might not be detected?
There was room for about thirty cars on this level. Might one carry a bomb of that size, park right up against the column? But Supergirl had said there was no bomb in the Madison.
The elevator went up, called by some other user. It was quiet for the moment. Deathly quiet.
Just the thump of what he supposed would be the air conditioning.
Jenny's shutter clicked, slowly, in the low light.
"Funny sound," she said.
"Air conditioning, I guess." It was more than the thump. There was a sound like air in a duct. "I guess they have to keep the air circulating down here. All that carbon monoxide, from the car exhausts." He punched the call button, for fear the elevator might be in heavy use soon as more guests began to arrive: he didn't want to get stuck in the basement with car fumes.
"Got enough pictures?" he asked Jenny.
"Hard to get a good one. The thing's so big. Hang on. I want you in the shot, to show the scale."
The elevator arrived. Jenny snapped her shot and hurried over, obviously relieved to be going up to the surface. The camera disappeared into her handbag.
Back at the surface, there was now a steady stream of cars into the garage, more lined up waiting to get in, while a procession of Metropolis's foremost citizens passed in eclectic order through the double glass doors that led into the huge, glass-walled foyer.
Cameras clicked furiously as they came into the lighted foyer, among the giant chromium sculptures by Fracassi --- they always made Louis think of cranes, the feathered sort.
Mayor Frank Berkowitz came to meet them, broad smile on his photogenic face. He shook Louis's hand --- the two were old acquaintances from the City Hall beat --- and hesitated at the Band-Aids on Jenny's hand. Touched her hand gently when she said it didn't hurt.
"Ms. Olsen. I'm very glad to meet you."
As cameras clicked furiously.
The place was filling rapidly with the elite and also with the heroes of Metropolis. Jenny was gratified to see her companion in the dark, Barb Whitmore, the EMT. The two women shook hands and then embraced. Jenny was overwhelmed by the dark for a moment, the dark she'd shared with Barb.
"How's the little boy?" Barb asked. "How's Billy?"
"Improving," Jenny said, and recovered her sense of place and time as the mayor tried to get her attention for another introduction. "He's a lot better." She caught a breath that held light, and life, and survivors, feeling the sting of tears.
She introduced Whitmore to the mayor and his wife with, "This was my partner down there. Her name is Barb. She's a full-time hero. She's an EMT."
Strains of The Star-Spangled Banner came from the auditorium as Claire Kent reached the press table, picked up her press packet, and slipped it into her purse. Superspeed had gotten her dressed and ready, but she'd had an adventure getting a cab, which had meant a walk --- in the rain --- halfway to the Arts Center.
She drew a calmer breath, assured that she had her materials, she had her pass in order. On the opening strains of a choral arrangement of America the Beautiful, she made it into the darkened auditorium and spotting the pocket of press and photographers in the usual place, to the left of the stage, she walked quietly along the side and joined them.
Eddie from the Star was there, standing beside a photographer in the midst of a film change. Eddie gave her a questioning look as she slipped off her wet raincoat and draped it over an arm.
"Cab problems," Claire said quietly. He merely shrugged his shoulders, and she moved past him and a little further along the wall.
The chorus finished. Claire watched the mayor get up and take the podium in a barrage of flashbulbs. She spotted Jenny near the stage, almost unrecognizable, so uncharacteristically feminine in a dress and stockings and modest heels. And right beside her was Louis, looking, as usual, so handsome in his tailored suit.
No, not as usual. As he turned slightly, she realized that he was wearing a tux. She had never seen him so decked out, and felt a pang in her heart knowing that he was here with another girl.
"... in our city's calamity," the mayor was saying, and the curtain behind him began rising, on a large-screen display flanked by large American flags. "Ladies and gentlemen, rescuers and survivors of this tragedy, a word from the President of the United States!"
The screen came alive, and showed...
Lex Luthor, hair slightly disheveled, wearing an elegant evening gown with a strap off one shoulder, lounging back against a settee.
The audience stirred. Then gave a nervous, not quite-laugh at what one could take for a very ill-timed mix-up of tapes. The mayor was trying to communicate with technicians backstage.
On screen, Luthor was saying dead-on to the camera that the Cross design for the Madison was flawed.
"Someone's mixed up the tapes," the mayor said to the audience, with a nervous laugh. "I apologize, ladies and gentlemen."
"... a design that won't stand the test of time," Luthor said on-screen, to some unseen interviewer. On the tape, Lex sat up straight, adjusted the shoulder of her gown, and reached off-screen to retrieve a martini, twirling the glass in her hand.
When was this tape made? Claire asked herself, recalling the chronology Louis had established in his article. When was she sipping martinis and pronouncing on the Madison design? It had to be before she went to prison. It had to be after the lawsuit...
"When they could have had an asset to the city," Luthor said, continuing to spin the glass stem slowly in her fingers, "they picked a design that was flawed. Mistake. Mistake. It won't last the decade. There'll be a day people know the truth --- perhaps tragically so. And will it prove I was right? Certainly. But at what cost? At what cost, do you suppose?"
"This is embarrassing," the mayor said. "Can someone shut that thing off?"
Louis left Jenny's side, went up the steps to the side, and crossed the stage to speak to the mayor as the murmur from the audience became a buzz of disturbance and alarm. Sharpening her hearing and filtering out the buzz, Claire was able to hear what Louis was telling the mayor. Of course! The Arts Center was another of the Cross & Associates buildings.
Somebody wasn't changing the tape. It was beyond lack of competency. Claire went up the same steps and back into the curtains and the convenient dark.
"Ladies and gentlemen." the mayor said over a rising commotion. "Please evacuate the building. Do not go to the garage. Go directly outside."
Supergirl passed the curtains and sent them billowing, the flags lifting and stirring as she stood by Mayor Berkowitz.
Photographers and cameramen rushed toward her.
The mayor stood his ground by the mike and urged calm during the evacuation. The rescuers, the firemen and policemen, in their uniforms, had forgotten about being honored and spread out to do their jobs, preventing a panicked rush, marshaling the audience calmly toward the doors. Someone had had the sense to turn on the lights in the auditorium, allowing the audience to see their way out.
"Supergirl!" Louis said, taking her arm. "It's not a prank! Lex has done something. I don't know what, but she's done something. Cross designed this building. He designed the hospital annex, and the Sun Towers!"
"Your Honor," Supergirl said to the mayor, "I'm going to take you outside. Mr. Lane, get everybody else out the stage doors!"
"The garage!" Louis protested, releasing her arm but with no hint he was going to do what she'd asked him to do. The garage was precisely where she didn't want him.
But Supergirl had the mayor to get outside, and did that, fast. Spotted stragglers on the way, among them the mayor's wife. She set the mayor down on the edge of the retreating and frightened crowd, in the driving cold rain, and went back to get them, but the firemen were getting them out safely: the mayor's wife, no young woman, wearing high heels and soaked by the rain, ran as best she could to reach her husband.
"Move across the street!" Supergirl called out, hovering for a moment over the street in the glow of a streetlight and pointing so that they could see the lighted foyer of a nearby building she trusted Cross hadn't designed. She saw Mrs. Berkowitz reach her husband, safe, as all the crowd was safe, the firemen and policemen exiting the building last of all. Police who'd been on guard were already stopping traffic to protect the rain-blinded and frightened crowd as they streamed for other shelter.
Supergirl blazed back into the Arts Center with the hope that everyone was clear, now, and then knew she'd also left a crowd of newsmen in that building, and, no, not everyone was clear.
She streaked out the doors and down into the parking garage --- and intercepted Louis and Jenny and a following crowd of reporters and cameramen on their way down the ramp of the parking garage.
She flew over their heads and landed in front of them. "Out!" she said in no uncertain terms.
"There was a noise in the basement," Louis said, continuing forward, toward her.
"I'll look!" Supergirl started to turn away.
"I'm going!" Louis said, and caught hold of her arm again, getting her attention even as she all but lifted him off his feet as she completed her turn. "I know what I heard!"
She could protect him. Not a horde of reporters. She could get in and out faster than they could get down in the elevator. But the key word, the one she needed, was heard.
"Hush!" she said over her shoulder to the crowd. "Everyone stand still!"
She listened in that moment of shocked silence. And heard a sound she'd heard once before today.
A pump was working.
The reporters began talking again, not having heard anything, she supposed. But in that moment of Louis's attention elsewhere, she whisked downstairs, flying near the ceiling of the spiral ramp to avoid anyone trying to go down or up that ramp from the nether levels.
The sound was like a heartbeat to her ears.
And past the unfurling barrier of that central pillar and the distracting reflections of the parked cars, she chased that sound down to the very bottom, where only a few cars were parked.
Then she could look at the bare concrete floor, and see down to the depths. She could see the pattern of warmth from the building and the earth.
And she could see --- and hear --- the surge and swirl of water around the pillar.
Fast-moving water. Water... eroding the foundations, pushing sediment, moving earth. She didn't know for certain how it was getting in, but she knew how it could get out, in the middle of a city where an outflow like that would otherwise stop traffic.
A hundred gallons a minute. Straight into the sewer.
The sewer pipe at the Madison had broken --- everything's broke, Donald Wall, the city worker with the Parks Department, had said. Broken pipes had obscured the evidence.
They'd found a broken pipe at the Madison and tied into it to pump the water out. But there'd been a connection to the sewer main before the building had come down.
Had there been more than one tap into the city sewer? A way out --- for water carrying a sludge of earth?
She sped up and up the spiral ramp, up to --- she was far from surprised --- a contingent of determined reporters, including Louis and Jenny, coming down the ramp armed with cameras and recorders.
She landed right in front of them. "Somebody!" It wasn't safe to know all their names, even if she knew most. "Mr. Lane!" That one was safe. "Get outside to the mayor, get him to a phone and have him shut down the outflow water from this building where it empties into the city sewer. Get him to get hold of the building supervisor. Shut down the sewer for the whole block. Then shut down the city water main for the whole block. In that order! Do you understand? It's urgent! Do the same for the lines into the Sun Tower! And Met General!"
Louis opened his mouth as if to say something, then turned and began sprinting back up the ramp.
"What's going on?" was the chorus from a dozen throats, recorders and note-taking faculties ready.
"Undermining," she answered shortly. "Evacuate this building! Now! It's not safe!"
"Undermining?" somebody repeated.
"Everybody out!" Supergrl said, stepping forward, spreading her arms out in wide sweeping, shooing motions.
That was enough. The media contingent turned and headed out, following Louis.
All except one.
"Supergirl!" It was Jenny. "The hospital!"
Supergirl knew Jenny's personal concern. She knew how scared the photographer was for those kids.
She knew the cost it could be in fragile lives to order an evacuation that wasn't warranted: the hospital's frailest patients could die from being moved. Operations in progress would be stopped --- maybe fatally. Lives in the neonatal units, the elderly, the critical depended on uninterrupted oxygen.
She also knew she could trust Louis to get the message to the mayor. He'd covered City Hall enough for the mayor to know him, he was one of the honorees tonight, and he'd be sure to use her name. It was now time to go.
She swept Jenny up in her arms, flung a corner of her cape about the petite redhead, and went, out the door of the garage, out into the driving rain and through the thunder. Jenny held tight, hair soaked, cold, and intent as she was, she was sure, on getting where they were going, fast, before a madwoman let loose a disaster so callous, so heedlessly cruel a sane mind could scarcely imagine or track her reasons.
But Lex Luthor's target --- that was the man whose win in court was timed with the collapse of her reputation, her control over her financial empire. Get them back. Make them suffer. The substitution of that videotape was no accident, and she wished she'd laid hands on the hireling who'd gotten it into the machine backstage and who'd kept it running past the mayor's exhortations to shut it off... if the machine's Off switch hadn't been disabled.
But she had other, more urgent things on her mind as she saw the hospital ahead and dived for the garage. She could hear the sound, the same as at the Arts Center.
"Get upstairs!" she told Jenny, setting her down. "Tell the staff. Tell them to stop all surgeries they can. Evacuate the annex --- just this wing. Tell the hospital authorities the same thing I told Louis. Shut down the sewer outlet first and shut down the water main second. Right now, water's all under this garage and we don't want it to drain out, do you follow me? That's how Luthor does it: as long as the water's there, it helps support things while its scouring the bedrock like sandblasting. She pumps it out fast --- and there's no support left. That's how she's doing it."
"My God!" Jenny took a swipe at her dripping red hair with a scabbed, shaking hand. "Can you save the building? The patients? Is there anything you can do?"
"Protect the patients. There's a joint where the annex joins the old part of the hospital." She saw the photographer's confusion. "There will be one, trust me! The main building should be safe, but get the patients as far from that joint as possible. Building engineers will know where it is. Get everyone out of the rooms on this side, into the main hospital, and don't let anybody go back after cars. Go!"
"Right!" Jenny said, and ran for the doors that led inside the hospital corridors, wobbling slightly on unaccustomed heels.
Time was what Supergirl needed. Time was what the hospital needed, to move patients, some of whom were already suffering from the Madison collapse. And she couldn't lose time worrying about anything but how to stop gravity from having its way.
If they could just stabilize the situation, she thought. If they could maintain the water level under the building, so that the water could help bear the load of the building above, maybe they could pump in something more permanent to stabilize it. That was where she needed Harold Cross, and any other expert he could bring in. Oil field mud, maybe, if there was any such thing within trucking distance of Metropolis. Or something... something to cradle the structure. Lex's scheme relied on two things: in the midst of a city, a building got its pure water from one main and spilled its outflow water into the city sewer --- and there was nowhere for a building to get or dispose of water but those two conduits.
Create a water-filled cavity under a building by diverting a huge amount of water in under the foundations, scour the mud out into the sewer, keep the inflow and outflow balanced so that the water stayed at a certain pressure --- that set up the situation. Then shut down the inflow and pump like mad: the water would empty, the building would have a huge hollow under it, and concrete gauged to have a backing of earth would crack, fail, shatter under more weight than it could bear unsupported. Like a house of cards, once the structure failed at the foundations it went out of balance, and everything came down. Concrete all up and down the structure cracked, steel bent, glass shattered and shards flew like spears.
Like the Madison; like...
A van whipped up the driveway out of the rain and into the garage. She moved to stop it, thinking it might be some patient's unsuspecting family.
But another van screeched to a stop behind it, and both vans were full of reporters. Doors opened instantly. Reporters and cameramen from every news organization in the city started bailing out. With the doors open, lives and limbs were in jeopardy if she shoved them.
"Out!" she said. "Back up! This place isn't..."
A sudden thump, a jolt. A crack ran like lightning across the floor, up the wall.
The first reporters out froze in panic, beside the two heavy weights of those vans, weights the unstable floor didn't need, as others scrambled to get out of the threatened vehicles.
"Leave the vans!" she shouted at them. "Get out of here!"
A second crack appeared, right under the vans.
Like the dam. She was dealing with unstable concrete. Water. And imminent devastation.
"Run!" she yelled, and dived for the deepest part of the garage, down the spiral, down past mostly vacant levels of the structure, past the scatter of remaining cars, down to the lowest floor, in which cracks were proliferating with sounds like gunshots and concrete was separating from the structural web of rebar, dropping away into dark holes.
She heard through all of it the same sound as at the Arts Center, thump-thump, thump-thump, like the beating of a giant heart.
And from this vantage she could see the pool of water underneath the concrete floor, a pool half filling a hollow that shouldn't exist at all.
The destruction was further along here than at the Arts Center. If the water here was half gone, that meant the water under the building was draining fast, the strain was increasing to the point of disaster, and it could come at any second --- or at the next car to drive into the garage upstairs.
Someone had to be manning a pump to get the water in and one to get it out: even running unattended most of the time, an operation like this had to come from somewhere, and there had to be equipment and power to run it. There had to be pipes, and pipes led to pumps...
Her vision tracked one large pipe to an area that to her eyes looked as if it just quit in the middle of the hollow under the building. She saw another pipe that started on the other side, deep in the water-filled hollow beneath her, apparently attached to nothing, down there where water had scoured through the cavity.
She'd asked the mayor to get the source and outflow shut down. But too much had already gone. She needed the inflow continued, the outflow shut off to bring the water level back up, and she feared to leave it even to get to a phone.
A crack shot across the floor. Concrete fell --- just a little concrete. But the process was approaching critical, and it was a nightmare. Like the dam she hadn't been able to save, the devastation she hadn't been able to stop. Down here, with her hearing, the beat of that outflow pump was like the beat of a wounded heart, bleeding water away into the sewers, leaving hollowed-out space where the building required solid earth beneath its concrete supports. Stone or concrete weighed vastly less underwater, almost as if it floated: when the water that had hollowed out the earth was suddenly removed, as was happening now, the unsupported concrete endured stresses in places it was never designed to bear weight. And one crack happened. And another.
Two pumps --- one bringing in water from a city main, one carrying earth-laden water out from under a building into the sewer, kept a balance of forces, substituting water for solid earth, scouring stone, eroding a water-filled cavity where no cavity should be. Then, at a certain stage, the inflow pump was shut off, while the outflow pump kept shooting the water out --- choosing, but not precisely, the time of collapse: the time at which weight-bearing concrete cracked.
The process here was three-quarters complete. She could fuse that outflow pump to slag with her heat vision and stop it, but she couldn't see it from where she was, and the central support pillar was losing more and more substance around it. She needed desperately to stabilize the area, as concrete continued to drop in chunks from a floor increasingly lacking support.
All those patients... it was a nightmare, with nothing to take hold of, no leverage, no time.
But a vertical barrier like the dam in the Caucasus was one problem, with gravity working against the situation. This flood underfoot, this crumbling away of supports, had gravity working with it.
This time... cold... increased solidity... even if it cracked the concrete... would hold the building. The hospital. The patients.
She carefully bent rebar in a gaping hole in the flooring, where concrete had dropped, wanting no sudden shocks to the precarious structure, and dropped down into a dark hollow smelling of water and earth and wet concrete. She drew in air and breathed it out, supercooling it. She dived through the water: the little warmth it had was energy; and she took it in as fast as she could. She drew energy from the air she took in when she surfaced, bringing the oxygen and nitrogen atoms to a quieter and quieter state, as the energy that had kept the atoms agitated, the energy that permitted any movement of matter, flooded into her. She rose into the light and breathed the air out again, over the disintegrating floor, the steel, the vacancy that was exposed as concrete continued to drop away in chunks and slabs.
Cold. Cold that contracts most substances but expands water into a solid, like slowly flowing rock, and makes its volume larger.
Cold so sudden and so deep that as she rose above that pit a mist went up around her, and a rime began forming on every surface. The moisture in the air from the rain outside was crating thicker and thicker frost on everything, ice on parked cars --- ice underneath, around all the places where the building's supports were sunk in fluid water, rock and earth.
It looked like Antarctica, the ice steaming in the wet air coming down from the spiral ramp.
Nothing on that lower level could move.
But the girl from Krypton could. And she wanted the persons responsible. She wanted them with a passion --- but not more than she wanted the hospital and its occupants safe.
She shot out of that level toward the upper structures and met reporters. Cameras were rolling. Someone was trying to back up the threatened van.
Thump! went the concrete, and a tire went in. The whole van jolted. Reporters scrambled and tried to get their colleague out.
"Get out of here!" Supergirl said, grabbed two by their coats, went back for the van and the equipment and set it, wheezing on its shock absorbers, safely outside. "I know how they took down the Madison!" she said. "And I'm on my way to the Sun Tower Retirement Center, ladies and gentlemen, where there may be another of these setups, if you want your story. This garage ought to hold up, at least until they get jacks and timbers in here."
There'd been a terrible shock. A jolt like an earthquake. Screams had rung through the corridors of the hospital, as patients and relatives, nerves strung tight from what they'd survived, believed the floor might go in the next heartbeat.
If they'd doubted her warning and her advisements in the least, she thought, they'd have believed her now: But Jenny Olsen on her own, the heroine of the Madison, had credence with the hospital staff, and they'd moved on her word alone.
Since the floor hadn't collapsed, since they still had time, the evacuation still went on a pace as slow as nightmare, relatives helping patients, staff assisting those who could walk, patients helping patients, and wheelchairs, gurneys, everything they could possibly press into service.
They'd put Billy into a wheelchair. They'd just gotten the wheelchair, though Billy's father was wanting to carry him, against the nurses' advice. Jenny would have carried him herself, except that Supergirl was downstairs --- and there wasn't a chance the building would really fall. Supergirl would stop it. Jenny told herself that through the jolts, and despite the crack that split the wall in the hallway.
Jenny told herself that when, with Billy in the wheelchair and his father pushing it, his mother walking beside, they hurried toward the end of the hall.
"We'll make it," she said for the hundredth time. "It's all right. We'll make it."
A rush of air sent paper charts fluttering and flying. Frayed nerves twitched, and patients and staff gave small yelps of alarm. Supergirl had appeared on the floor, hand upheld in a calm down gesture.
"The building is shored up," she said to everyone around her. "Slow down, take it easy. Get to the other wing, but take your time. It should stand. Get building engineers to look at the basement and get jacks and timbers in there. Get Harold Cross on the phone. He'll have the best advice."
"What..." ...happened? Jenny was trying to ask.
But with another rush of air and flutter of papers scattered by her arrival --- she was gone.
"Are we okay?" Mrs. Anderson asked faintly. "Are we safe, then?" And Billy, kid that he was, asked, "How'd she do that?"
"She's just pretty fast," Jenny said, shoring up her own confidence, and with Billy and his parents continued the trek to the end of the hall, where they were setting up cots, laying down mattresses, filling vacant rooms with the most serious cases, on this floor and on others.
But Billy wasn't on the list of criticals anymore. And when he left this hospital, as he would, soon, he wouldn't be Her Kid anymore.
They crossed the bright metal joint that marked the end of the annex and the beginning of the old building, out of the threatened area, and nurses and orderlies were arranging places for everyone, stacking them up like planes at the airport, directing a calmer, less frightened traffic. Jenny felt a little wobble in the knees, even so, but somebody said, "Hey, it's that photographer lady!"
And somebody else said, "That's the one that got those kids out," and an old woman in a wheelchair, among those jammed into the hall, reached out and patted her arm as she stopped with the Andersons.
"Way to go, honey," the old lady said.
It was a nest of rats, two-legged ones, in the building next to the Arts Center, three men who looked up as Supergirl plunged through an office basement wall, following electric lines and pipes that weren't, she was willing to stake her good reputation on the guess, a reasonable adjunct to the Metropolis Arts Center's original plumbing.
Very large pipes went underground from there, to and from, and involved two big pumps and a tie-in to the sewer line. Just the same as they had in the now entirely frozen basement of the Sun Tower Retirement Center --- which had only begun to drain, and which had suffered no damage yet: the residents might not even know what had happened, except that the air conditioning had suddenly mandated an extra sweater or a recourse to the heating system. The furnace might not work. But the retirees could sleep securely in their building tonight and read about it in the papers in the morning.
Meanwhile, a reasonable individual could ask what three men were doing sitting in the dark in a building with two huge pumps and a lot of pipe --- pumps which weren't doing anything since the city had shut down the sewer and the water main. But evidently they'd thought they'd be safer to sit tight, with all the commotion around the Arts Center. They'd just sit safe and quiet in the dark and leave in the small hours before dawn.
So they might have thought.
"Good evening," Supergirl said, appearing suddenly in their midst, fists clenched at her sides. "Friends of Luthor's?"
"That's our wall!" one protested indignantly, still crouched in the little nest of boxes and crates --- and pipes and other such evidence. "You can't just bust down our wall! We got rights!"
"Sorry," she said, and nodded back over her shoulder to the dark, the rain, and a grim line of Metropolis's finest, many of them still in their dress uniforms from the ceremony.
And behind them, the mayor and a municipal judge, both drenched, both of whom had been with the police at the Arts Center. And neither of whom were in a forgiving mood.
"Talk to them," Supergirl said to the rats. "Tell them about it."
One man was reaching into the shadows at the side of the pump.
Supergirl reached faster, stopping the hand on its way to the Uzi. Her slender hands turned the weapon into a piece of modern art, and then holding the sculpture in one hand, took the owner up by the back of the coat with the other. The others thought they'd scatter through the building.
She took the would-be gunman out to the police, in the rain, the man protesting his innocence all the way despite the piece of evidence in her other hand. The other two had run, escaping inside the building.
Supergirl could still see them. She waited, just to know which way they'd dodge.
To the service area and the van they had behind the garage door. She could see that, too.
And moved, as fast as the flash of lightning in the heavens.
Glass was a cheap repair, compared to a door. Lives were not cheap, and they'd already demonstrated they were armed. She zipped through a window just wide enough for her, in a shower of glass virtually powdered by the impact.
They were getting into the van, with the notion they were going to drive out a shut garage door, no doubt.
She landed beside the driver. The man yelled and shoved the van door at her. She caught the door, gripping the edge with one hand and tearing it off its hinges. A flick of her wrist then tossed it away over her shoulder. The driver jumped out and ran for the garage door.
So did his colleague. As she followed them, a shot came back at her.
As much as she ordinarily would have liked to, this time she didn't have time to play around with gunfire. Nor was she in the mood to do so. Still, she didn't bother to catch the bullet in her hand. Instead, she took the time to correct for his poor aim, moving her body slightly to the left. Then, as the bullet came straight for her chest, she gave her body a quick twist. The outside of her left breast struck the bullet and swatted it aside. Impeccably timed, it wasn't a particularly hard swat. In addition, with her softest flesh dimpling slightly as it acted like a shock absorber, the bullet didn't have enough energy remaining to go through the glass, merely cracking one of the van's side windows before falling harmlessly to the ground.
Even before the flattened slug could hit the ground, she had rounded the back end of the van. One man was looking back at her, a gun in his hand. "I don't think so," she told the gunman, and collecting the gun before he could get off another shot, flung it straight up, where the barrel lodged firmly in the sheetrock, out of play.
Then, putting her hands on her hips, she nodded toward the garage door. "Open the door," she invited them. "Go ahead."
Tearing their eyes away from her, they scrambled to do just that.
There were rain-soaked and grim-faced police on that side, too, police who wanted the perpetrators of the Madison disaster very, very badly.
The rental agreement on the office complex would be immaculate, Supergirl was sure. So would the rental agreement on the office building next to the hospital, and the warehouse near the retirement center. Nothing in the documents involving those adjacent buildings would ever touch either Lexcorp or Lex Luthor, oh, no, nothing so easy.
Nothing would indicate how, somehow, the arrangements traced back to a madwoman locked behind penitentiary bars with no contact with the outside world.
But Metropolis was not in a forgiving mood. And if these men wanted similar accommodations in the men's penitentiary on the barren hilltop west of the city, a ticket likely could be arranged.
It remained to see how silent they'd stay, when that prospect stared them in the face.
But she didn't think, even if these men talked, that the contacts they named would lead high enough. A man named Smalley had died. A reporter, Monique Simms, had died. No one had put those two facts together until Louis Lane had started prying and searching into the Madison.
If they did find a connection to higher-ups, there was a strong likelihood there'd be other mysterious deaths --- if they didn't move fast enough.
In the meantime... ice... would keep its frozen grip on the threatened structures; and jacks and shorings would prevent a collapse. Ambulances would move less critical patients to outlying hospitals, where the threat to that one wing had taken maybe thirty hospital rooms out of commission.
All the same, she'd keep an eye on the hospital tonight, maybe help the workmen who'd be bringing in heavy duty jacks and shoring timbers. She'd have to make sure that the water stayed frozen. That was another matter.
And she'd look in on the other two sites, the Arts Center and the Sun Tower, as well.
It looked like it was going to be another night without sleep. Again.
She left Luthor's hired help to the police and the municipal judge and lifted herself, almost leisurely, into the night sky.
The hospital had been, of all, the most threatened. Luthor had planned that brutal stroke at the very moment the city was honoring its heroes.
The Arts Center would have gone next.
And while the city was still reeling from those disasters, the giant Sun Tower would have gone.
The mind that could have conceived and carried out such a scenario deserved to be behind bars for a long, lonely life.
Lightning flashed as she flew slowly over the hospital, reassuring herself that it was still standing, safe and secure as the ice could hold it.
She saw streets glistening with rain and reflecting red lights. Ambulances were waiting at the emergency room doors... as she supposed, to carry patients Met General no longer had room for to other hospitals about the area. There were flatbed trucks, already bringing in timbers and truck jacks.
Lights still shone from the windows on all the floors, even the threatened annex.
Beautiful lights, she thought. Power was still on. She'd get the cars out of there tomorrow morning. People's property would be safe, too. That had its importance, in the scale of things.
She flew past the front of the hospital, checking for cracks, listening, below the sounds of the city, for any further difficulties; and heard none.
She flew on to the Arts Center, and to the building across the street. She landed there, in front of the doors, expecting to go in quietly, on foot.
Looking for someone.
But he was there, waiting next to the rain-spattered window, where he had a view of both the Arts Center across the street and the approach to the doors. He saw her and left the window.
Damp hair cascading around her face, she waited as he came out the glass doors and walked out under the awning.
"Hi," he said.
"Hi yourself. Everything all right over here?"
"Pretty well buttoned down, thanks to you." He waved a hand at the policemen ringing the Arts Center and then raked his fingers through his wet hair. Suddenly the weariness showed. "Cabs melt in the rain. You can never find them."
"Want a lift?"
"Sure," he said, as if, for anyone watching from the window, they were casual acquaintances.
Then, not quite as if they were casual acquaintances, she folded a corner of her cape about him. And, before any of the media who may have stayed around in the building could come out, she swept him up in her arms and carried him up, up into the rainy sky.
They were somewhere only in the witness of passing planes when she hugged him close and very tenderly kissed a weary, sleepy reporter.
His eyes snapped open in surprise at the kiss. But he was too much a reporter at heart. "Do you know how Lex did it?" he wanted to know. Even as the man wrapped his arms around her, the reporter wanted to know. He had a lead on every reporter on the city --- except Claire Kent, not that she was going to tell him so. And she was willing to share the byline with him.
"Yes," she said, and to stop the question, kissed him twice. And a third time. It was easy to forget time and storms with his arms around her. There was, for a rare moment, company up here, above the world.
And, for a moment, he wasn't a reporter. Just the happiest man in the world, being carried in the arms of the girl of his dreams. Kissing --- and being kissed by --- the girl of his dreams.
But the thunder rolled, and the rain sheeted down as they flew into the outpouring of a cloud. And she'd answer his questions later.
She'd also have to go back to the hospital and the other threatened buildings to check on them.
She would have to give Louis her viewpoint on this evening' events at the Arts Center for his article, complete with some quotes.
Claire Kent would have to write and file her own story on the rest of Supergirl's activities this evening at the hospital and at the Sun Towers.
Between them, they would scoop every other news organization in the city. In the world.
She was going to have meeting with Lex Luthor, hold her to account for her actions.
Right now, getting the man from Earth home and out of the rain was the first priority for the girl from Krypton.