The Great Airport Mystery (with apologies to Franklin W. Dixon) By LastScorpion
The Hardy Boys Mysteries belong to Franklin W. Dixon and Grosset & Dunlap. "Smallville" and its characters belong to DC Comics, the WB, Millar & Gough, and Tollin & Robbins. (I think.) This story goes AU (ha!) around the middle of "Smallville" season two. None of it belongs to me; I'm just fooling around. Please don't sue.
Many thanks to Pfeffa for the quick beta-read and the information about planes. All remaining errors are mine alone.
Trouble at LexCorp
Bald, boyish billionaire Lex Luthor slammed down his telephone in disgust. "Well, sh-shoot," he fumed, looking up at his tall, dark-haired best friend, Clark, who had just come into the office.
"What's wrong, Lex?" Clark asked.
"I've just found out that the firm of private detectives from Metropolis that I normally employ in my business has been hired away from me. They're working for LuthorCorp now."
"That's too bad."
"To make matters worse, we've been having a serious problem with missing electronic parts." Lex got up from his desk chair and started stalking around the room in an agitated manner. "As you know, I've been modernizing Plant Number Three. Some of the machinery we were using for pollution control was practically antique. I don't know how Dad got away with it for so long, unless it's because he was bribing the local authorities. That won't do for me."
Clark sprawled comfortably on the office's leather sofa and made approving noises. He knew that Lex always wanted to prove he wasn't like his father, the hirsute and immoral multi-billionaire, Lionel Luthor.
"In the course of the modernization, some valuable electronic components have been ordered from overseas. They were shipped to Gotham, and then they were supposed to be flown from Gotham International Airport to Smallville Municipal. They were picked up, but they never arrived. Mr. Hakes at the air transport company doesn't seem to know what's going on. I need someone to get to the bottom of it, but I don't have any private detectives anymore!" Lex was furious. "This can't be a coincidence! I know my father will stop at nothing to destroy my business, and make me come back to LuthorCorp!"
"Calm down, Lex. Maybe we can track this stuff by ourselves."
Lex took a deep breath and sat down on the couch next to Clark. "Do you really think so?"
"Sure." Clark put a reassuring hand on the older boy's shoulder. "Pete and I figured out the mystery when Sheriff Ethan shot your dad, and Chloe's an information-gathering whiz, what with her computer skills and the fact that she's dated guys in every records-keeping department in the county. I'm sure they'll be glad to help."
Lex snorted derisively and laid his head down on the back of the couch. "Right. Pete Ross hates me, and Chloe only puts up with me because her dad works for LexCorp."
"Chloe likes you just fine, and Pete hates your dad, not you. He's getting used to you, I think. Besides," Clark added slyly, "he'll have to stay on your good side if he wants to make time with your business partner."
"Pete and Lana?" Lex wondered.
"Pete and Lana," Clark confirmed. Lex had provided the financial backing for young Lana Lang, former Homecoming Queen at Smallville High School, to open a local coffee shop, the Talon.
"Well, I gotta get home if I'm gonna finish my chores in time to get to Lana's costume party tonight. Are you going?"
"She's my business partner. I can't get out of it."
Clark laughed. "See you later, then, Lex!"
An Air Disaster
"Hey, Dad!" Clark yelled as he barreled into the neat, cheery kitchen of the Kent farmhouse later that afternoon, his chores finished. "Do you know anybody down at the airport?"
Handsome, athletic-looking farmer Jonathan Kent looked up from his seed catalog. "Sure I do. I've lived here all my life, you know. Where's the fire? And did you wipe your feet?"
"Um," said Clark. He went back out to the porch, wiped his boots, and then came in again, less boisterously.
Jonathan took off his wire-rimmed spectacles and put them away. He gestured for Clark to take a seat, and the tall boy folded himself into a chair at the kitchen table. "What do you want to know about the Smallville Airport?"
"I want to know about Mr. Hakes's air transport company."
"Lex hired him to bring some parts from Gotham for the factory, and they disappeared."
Jonathan gave a little shake of his head. "Lex Luthor. Don't you go giving poor Jerry Hakes trouble, now. He's had a hard time."
"What do you mean?"
"Several weeks ago his best plane went down without a trace. His wife was piloting it. Poor Jerry hasn't been the same since."
"Gee, that's rough. It might explain why he's had things go missing, though," Clark mused. "Maybe he's just too upset to keep track of his business."
Jonathan pursed his lips disapprovingly. "Clark, when your reaction to hearing about a man losing his wife is to worry about how it'll affect his business, I know you've been hanging around with Lex Luthor too long."
Clark blushed. "I didn't mean it like that, Dad. But Lex really needs those parts, and I told him I'd help figure out what happened to them."
Jonathan sighed. "Well, I haven't seen poor Jerry in quite a while. Tomorrow's Saturday. Tell you what, in the morning after chores I'll drive you out to the airport and we'll bring him some of your mother's homemade pie. You can ask him about the missing cargo, but be nice. Lex can come, too."
Clark beamed. "Thanks, Dad. That would be great!"
Clark went upstairs to get ready for Lana's costume party. His mother had made him a long black cape with a red lining. He planned to wear it over his one good suit, which Lex had given him to be Best Man at his ill-fated wedding ("The Mystery of Desiree Atkins"). He could slick back his unruly dark hair, show his strangely pointy teeth a lot, and claim to be a vampire.
Clark's mother was in the kitchen when he finished dressing and came back downstairs. Martha Kent was a friendly red-haired woman who was never idle. "Ready for Lana's party?" she asked, stirring up a batch of muffin batter.
"Uh huh," Clark answered. "How do I look?"
Mrs. Kent looked up at her tall son and smiled. "You're very scary," she told him, trying to keep a straight face. "Why don't you take that bag of cookies with you when you go?"
"Thanks, Mom. I'm sure everybody will appreciate them."
"Behave yourself! And have fun!" Martha yelled after Clark as he ran off towards town, his cape billowing behind him.
Mere moments later, Clark pulled up short behind the Smallville Town Limits sign. He walked to the Talon at a more sedate pace, so that no one would suspect he was not exactly a normal Earth boy. Other than Mr. and Mrs. Kent, only Pete Ross, Clark's best friend since kindergarten, knew that Clark Kent was really an alien from outer space.
A silver convertible pulled up in front of the Talon just as Clark walked up to the front door. Lex got out. He was dressed as a stage magician, with a top hat, dark suit, long black cape and a wand. "Hey, Clark," he greeted his young friend.
"Hey, Lex. Nice cape. We almost match!"
Lex looked Clark up and down and smirked. "What's in the bag?" he asked.
Clark held it up in front of him. "Blood of the innocent," he joked, showing his teeth. "Actually it's cookies Mom sent for the party."
"I love your mother's homemade cookies. Shall we go in?"
When Clark and Lex entered the big main room of the coffee shop, they were hailed by a camel with four human legs, Spaceman Prito, and many other fantastic figures.
Pretty, brown-haired Lana was dressed as a fairy princess, and blonde, vivacious Chloe as a page boy. The two girls hurried forward to greet the late arrivals.
"Clark! Lex!" Lana exclaimed. "My word! You two could be twins!"
"Not exactly," Chloe observed, eyeing both boys appraisingly.
"Totally unplanned," Clark reassured them. "Mom sent cookies, Lana. Do you want to show me where to put them?"
"Sure, Clark," Lana said, taking the bag from him. "We'll just take them into the kitchen and...." Lana's instructions petered off into nothing when she saw the boy who had just come into the party. The other three turned around to see what was attracting her attention.
"Hi, guys. Sorry I'm late." Short, muscular Pete Ross was wearing cargo pants and a T-shirt and zippered sweatshirt from two different Los Angeles sports teams. The feature of his costume that was causing everyone's jaw to drop, however, was his shaved head!
Lex, long accustomed to being the only bald young man at any social gathering, was the first to speak. "What are you supposed to be?" he asked dryly.
"I'm Charles Gunn!" Pete exclaimed, brandishing the big makeshift ax he was carrying. "You know, the demon-hunting guy from the WB's hit show, 'Angel'."
Everybody looked a little confused except Lana, who squealed happily, "I wish you'd told me beforehand! I could've been Fred!" She gave a couple of earnest little nods, then spread her white fluttery skirts and spun. "As it is, I'm reclaiming my fairy princesstude!" she declared, wrinkling her nose cutely and adding another emphatic nod.
Pete looked her up and down appreciatively. "I think you look fine as is," he told her and grinned. "You want some protection while you're setting those cookies out?"
Lana preened and giggled. Pete went with her and the cookies in the direction of the kitchen.
Chloe sighed and rolled her eyes. "She and Pete have been like that all week," she huffed to Clark and Lex. "At school, at home -- I can't escape their relentless cuteness!"
The boys were sympathetic, but they laughed all the same. Clark explained LexCorp's problem to Chloe and asked her if she had any contacts at the airport.
"Of course I do!" the budding journalist assured them. "Andy Wilson took me skating last weekend. He works in the office of the FBO in exchange for flying lessons."
Clark didn't know him. "Does he go to Smallville High?" he asked.
"No," Chloe replied, "he's at Grandville Community College."
"Oh, an older man," Lex teased.
"He's only nineteen!" Chloe exclaimed. Lex kept laughing, and Chloe got mad. "Your former wife, Desiree, was SIX YEARS older than you, remember, Lex? You guys make me sick!" Chloe stomped off to get some punch.
Clark would have gone after her, if Lex hadn't looked so stricken. Clark punched him softly on the shoulder and pretended to misunderstand what his friend was upset about. "You know Chloe," Clark said cheerfully. "She blows up fast, but she cools down fast, too. She won't be mad for long. Let's go see what music they have. Ask her to dance in half an hour, and I bet she'll have forgiven you for making fun of her."
Lex looked up at Clark and smiled. He appreciated it when Clark tried to help him fit in with the younger crowd. Everyone Lex's own age in Smallville was off at college or working long days on a farm. If Clark hadn't saved his life the first day Lex came to town, and become his friend, and introduced him around to the high school kids, Lex might well have had no contact with anyone outside of work.
A Missing Chum
The party went well. Chloe forgot her anger quickly, as Clark had predicted. She danced with almost every boy there, including Clark and Lex, and she promised them that she'd ask Andy to keep an eye out for anything suspicious. Lana and Pete only appeared intermittently, and Lana's increasingly disarranged hair prompted a certain amount of giggling and eye-rolling among the other girls present. Everyone was grateful to be spared the sight of pancake kisses.
People started heading home at about eleven o'clock.
Lex was watching Clark stack chairs when Lana came out of the kitchen and asked, "Where's Pete?"
Chloe looked up from her broom and dustpan. "He was here a little while ago." "I think he took some trash bags out to the alley," Lex put in. He frowned. "That was about fifteen minutes ago."
"It shouldn't take that long to take out the rubbish," Lana worried.
"I'll go look for him," Clark volunteered. He put down the chairs and went out the back door to the alley. There was a big trash bag spilled across the pavement near the dumpster, and Pete was nowhere to be seen
Adjusting his senses was practically second nature to Clark, now. He used his super-sensitive hearing to cast around for any clues to Pete's whereabouts. Far off in the distance he could hear an argument of some kind, and he thought Pete's was one of the voices he could almost make out.
Clark was nearly deafened by the squeal of Lex's tires as the convertible pulled up in the alley. "Pete's truck is still parked out front," Lex said.
Clark hopped into the car without opening a door. "Pete wouldn't have left the garbage like that. Something happened. Drive that way." Clark waved in the direction that the argument had seemed to be coming from.
Lex looked a little dubious, but did as Clark asked. It was hard for a man as curious as the young mogul to avoid asking questions, but he forced himself to try around his evasive friend.
Clark found that tracking the argument wasn't hard with Lex doing all the driving. He gestured to indicate his best guess of their route at every intersection, and it wasn't long before Clark's telescopic vision picked up a plain white van on the straight, lonely Kansas road. Lex always drove like a maniac, and there was no way the van could outrun them. Focusing his x-ray vision inside the leading vehicle, Clark saw a big guy slap Pete with a pistol.
Clark growled, "Faster, Lex. We have to catch that van!"
"That white one way up there? How do you.... Never mind," Lex said. He drove faster, and in a few minutes the two vehicles were neck-and-neck.
"Hold 'er steady for a minute!" Clark shouted, and then he leapt from the open convertible to the roof of the van.
"Jeeze," Lex whispered. He didn't have time to marvel at his friend's abilities for long, though, because the other driver seemed to have finally realized that something was going on. The van swerved at Lex's car, and it took some fancy driving to avoid being run off the road.
Meanwhile, Clark wasted no time. He dug through the sheet metal of the roof with his fingers and pulled. The wide-eyed driver slammed on the brakes in terror at the sight of a big guy, dressed as a vampire, ripping his way in through the roof of his van.
Clark dropped down into the vehicle and confronted the other miscreant. "Let him go!" he yelled.
The second criminal wasn't as easily cowed as the driver was. He pointed his gun at Pete's head. "Get out of the van, chump, and walk away, or else Baldy here gets it," he menaced.
Clark froze. He knew he was faster than a speeding bullet, but he'd have a lot farther to travel to reach the gunman than a bullet would have to reach Pete's head. He couldn't just get out and walk away, though. They were at an impasse.
Suddenly the front door of the van was wrenched open, and the driver (who had been staring in disbelief at the tense situation between Clark and the other kidnapper) let out a strangled yelp as Lex tasered him into unconsciousness.
That was all the distraction Clark needed. He launched himself at the gunman. Pete took the opportunity to squirm loose and dive for the floor at the same time, so the three rounds the perpetrator squeezed off before Clark knocked him out hit no one. There the three boys were, with two unconscious would-be kidnappers and a partially wrecked van.
A Mistaken Identity
"I'm glad you two noticed I was gone," Pete said thankfully to Clark and Lex.
"It was Lana who noticed," Lex said dryly.
Pete smiled. "Even better." He turned to Clark. "What do we do now?"
"I guess we should take these guys to the police," Clark said, trying to straighten out the ruined shards of the van roof so they didn't look so suspicious. It wasn't working very well.
"What did they want, Pete?" Lex asked. He was watching Clark, and trying very hard not to ask the questions he knew Clark would never answer.
"I think they made a mistake," Pete replied. He hauled the unconscious driver's body out of the front seat and dumped him in the back with his partner. "They kept warning me to lay off the investigation, said my business wouldn't take it and neither would I. 'Don't think your name will protect you,' stuff like that." Pete looked at the kidnappers, then looked at Lex. "I think they were after you."
"Guess you picked the wrong day to shave your head, Pete!" Clark joked. "Do we have anything to tie these guys up with?"
Lex silently left the van and returned less than a minute later. He was carrying a pair of handcuffs and a small coil of fine silk rope.
Pete guffawed. "Where'd you get those?"
"Trunk of my car."
Clark's brow furrowed in confusion. "What were you doing with rope and handcuffs in the trunk of your car?"
"Not just rope, Clark," Pete grinned as he tied up the man who'd hit him. "Silk rope."
Lex just looked at them. Clark blushed and Pete laughed some more.
Once the malefactors were secured, the boys decided that Pete would drive the van to the police station. Clark would ride with Pete, in case the thugs woke up. Lex would follow them in the convertible.
Better Safe than Sorry
The sheriff's deputy on duty at the station looked up Pete's abductors in the computer and said they both had criminal records dating back several years in Gotham City. Neither of them had ever been arrested in Kansas before. Pete was happy to swear out a complaint and change that for them.
The van had to be left behind as evidence. Clark hoped they didn't look at the roof too closely -- he'd taken the opportunity when Lex hadn't been with him and Pete to weld the metal shut with his eyes, but it hadn't worked as well as he'd hoped.
Sometimes he wondered why he bothered to hide his extraterrestrial powers from Lex. They were best friends, after all. His dad kept saying, "You can't trust a Luthor," but try as he might, Clark always did.
Oh, well. He'd have to think about it tomorrow.
After Lex and Clark left Pete off at his house in town, they hopped back into the silver convertible and headed towards the Kent Farm. It was late.
"I'll drop you at home, and then meet you in the morning at the airport," Lex said. "What time shall we hook up at Hakes Air Transport Company?"
"Um, Lex, I don't think that's a good idea."
"What? Why?" Lex turned his head and looked at Clark questioningly. Clark hated it when Lex drove like that.
"Eyes on the road, Lex. Eyes on the road," Clark repeated agitatedly until Lex resumed paying attention to his driving. "Pete said he thought those two goons were after you, not him. And you gotta admit, it makes way more sense if that's the case. If somebody's after you, I don't think you should be staying at the mansion all alone."
"I do have security, you know."
Clark snorted. "Yeah, some security. They never stop me."
"Well, yes, if I'm going to be attacked by...." Lex didn't know how to finish that sentence.
Clark went on as if he didn't notice. "How about this? We'll go to your house, and you can pack a bag and stay with me until this whole thing blows over."
Lex always liked to have a chance to spend more time with Clark, but there were several obvious drawbacks to this plan. "What about your parents?"
"They won't mind. Mom likes you, and Dad does, too. Kind of."
Lex snickered. "I have a business to run, you know. How long would you anticipate this situation lasting?"
"Well, I don't know. It's Friday night, now...."
"Saturday morning," Lex interrupted. It was after midnight.
"Whatever. It's the weekend. LexCorp won't dry up and blow away if you take an occasional weekend off, will it? If we don't have this mystery solved by Monday, you can bring in more security from Metropolis or something."
They arrived at Lex's incongruous Scottish castle, and Lex parked the car out front. Clark looked all around the whole time they were there, anxiously using his x-ray vision to try to catch sight of any trouble. When Lex finished packing (way too many clothes for just a weekend, Clark thought) Clark sighed in relief. They could finally get going.
The two boys walked out to the car. They got in, and Lex inserted his key. Clark suddenly realized that something smelled funny. "Lex!" he shouted.
The silver convertible exploded into a ball of flame.
A Narrow Escape
Fortunately, Clark's superhuman senses had picked up on the smell of the explosive and the sound of the igniter just in time. He snatched Lex out of the car and held him tight, shielding his friend from the shock and flame with his invulnerable alien body.
Moments later, when the blast of the explosion had subsided, and the remains of the sports car were burning merrily, the two boys looked at each other.
Clark was very upset. Lex could've been killed! Why didn't he pay attention to the car? Of course, Clark wasn't hurt, and even his suit had somehow been protected by his aura of invulnerability, or something, but the new cape his mom had made him was completely shredded. "Lex, are you okay?" he asked.
Lex didn't seem to be hurt at all, but he was breathing hard, and his blue-gray eyes were wide with shock.
"Lex," Clark repeated. He x-rayed his friend worriedly.
"D-dang," Lex breathed. "I loved that car. Let me up, Clark."
Clark let go and stood up, staying ready to catch Lex if the older boy needed help. Lex took a deep breath and ran his hands over his head, then stood up quickly. He looked mad.
"Well," Lex said. "That would seem to confirm our hypothesis that Pete was not, in fact, the intended victim of tonight's kidnapping attempt."
"I'll say," Clark responded.
Lex looked at Clark, then at the burning car, then at Clark again. Clark tried to look inconspicuous. Finally Lex sighed and got his cell phone out of his jacket pocket. After reporting the explosion to the authorities, and telling them that he'd be reachable only at his cell number for the foreseeable future, he turned to Clark again. "Let's go pack another suitcase," he said.
It was a good thing Lex had so many cars. They checked the next one over very thoroughly before getting in.
Lex Luthor drove down the familiar road to the Kents' farm more carefully than usual. He couldn't help checking the rear-view mirror over and over again. It was all he could do keep himself from craning his neck and looking over his shoulder for the car he was almost sure would be following him.
He hoped this plan worked.
There! The lights were out, but he was a solid 85% sure there was a vehicle behind him now: a big one, a truck or SUV. It must have been lurking in a side road.... Whoa!
The dark boxy vehicle behind him had suddenly been overturned.
"Good plan, Clark," Lex thought, as he pulled a U-turn in the middle of the deserted Kansas highway. "I sure wish I knew how you do that."
By the time Lex pulled up to the overturned vehicle, Clark already had the unconscious driver clear of the wreckage.
"Did he tell you anything?" Lex asked.
"No. He must have hit his head. Not wearing a seat belt," Clark said sadly.
"We'll take him back to the mansion and interrogate him when he comes around."
"Lex!" Clark sounded scandalized. "We can't do that! He might have a concussion or something, and besides I'm pretty sure it's illegal to, you know, take prisoners in Kansas. We have to call the police, and let them handle him."
Lex gritted his jaw and pulled out his cell phone. "Fine," he said. "But I'll bet you dollars to donuts he won't say anything useful to the sheriff."
Oh, What a Beautiful Morning
By the time the boys got back to the Kent farmhouse and got to sleep, it was very late. Lex had been right about their stalker; he remained mulishly silent in the Smallville Sheriff's Office, and the deputies couldn't make him say anything, not even that he wanted a lawyer.
Lex was pretty unhappy about being awakened at five a.m.
"Oh, what a beautiful morning! Oh, what a beautiful day! I've got a beautiful feeling! Everything's going my...."
"What? Oh, I'm sorry Lex." It was absolutely ludicrous how Clark tried to keep his voice down after that unremittingly bovine attempt at song had already blasted Lex awake.
Lex rolled over in Clark's bed and looked at his young friend with bleary eyes. He checked the alarm clock on the bedside table. "Clark. It's five o'clock. We only went to bed two or three hours ago. What are you doing?"
"It's a farm, Lex. We have to get the morning chores done before we can go to the airport and find out stuff about your missing parts."
"Do you have to make all that noise about it?"
Clark ducked his head and looked embarrassed. "No, Lex. I'm sorry. I'll try to be quieter. And you should sleep in some. You look pretty tired."
Lex closed his eyes and listened to Clark thunder out of the room and down the stairs.
There were three or four minutes of blessed silence. Lex was almost back to sleep when he heard the gallumphing of another set of boots out in the hallway, slightly lighter, probably Clark's dad. Then Jonathan Kent started singing, "Oh, what a beautiful morning! Oh, what a beautiful day! I've got a beautiful feeling! Everything's going my way!"
At least he had a better singing voice than his son did.
Lex buried his head under Clark's pillow.
Smallville Municipal Airport
Smallville Municipal Airport wasn't very big. It had a single runway of about 3000 feet, and a little terminal with an agricultural dusting business at one end, the office for Hakes Air Transport Company at the other end, and the FBO in the middle. The FBO was Smallville Flying Services. They provided "Learn to Fly Here" lessons, ran a small diner (specializing in burgers, fries and ice-cream), had somebody listening in to the Unicom very nearly all the time, rented out a few planes, and let people use their phone.
Jonathan Kent didn't bother to go into the terminal; he just pulled the dusty farm truck up to the hangars on the side. "Hey, Jerry!" he shouted. "You around? We brought you a pie!"
A tall, dark-haired man with a thin mustache came out of the hangar, wiping his hands on a rag. "Mr. Hakes is up at the terminal," he said. "I'm Nick Johnson."
"Jonathan Kent," Clark's dad introduced himself, juggling the pie so that he could shake hands. "Reckon we'll just go up and look for Jerry, then. Much obliged."
Clark and Lex tagged along behind Mr. Kent up to the office. Clark noticed Lex look searchingly at Mr. Johnson, and wondered what the older boy had seen that he'd missed.
The conversation with Mr. Hakes proved disappointing. He didn't have anything more to say about the missing parts than what he'd told Lex already over the telephone. If the investigation made any progress at all, it was just to find out that Mr. Hakes wasn't really a suspect. He was jumpy, and sad, and clearly out-of-it in numerous ways. If he was to blame for the problem, it was only in that he was too distraught to pay much attention to his business. He was pathetically grateful for the pie, and for Mr. Kent's friendliness. Even Lex felt sorry for him.
As the three men left Hakes Air Transport Company's disordered little office, they caught sight of a familiar face in the airport diner. Chloe Sullivan was sitting at a table with a round-faced, curly-haired boy. They were laughing and eating ice cream sundaes.
"Hey, Chloe," Clark greeted her.
Chloe looked up from her tete-a-tete and smiled. "Hey, guys. Hey, Mr. Kent. This is Andy Wilson. Andy, this is Mr. Kent, and Clark Kent, and Lex Luthor. Lex is the one whose stuff disappeared."
Andy stood up to shake hands. Clark could tell that his dad was impressed with the college-boy's manners. "I'm pleased to meet you all," he said. "Would you like to join us?"
Jonathan Kent had to get back to his farmwork, so he left the youngsters to their investigation and headed on home. Clark and Lex said they could catch a ride back with Chloe, whose little red Ford was parked right outside the terminal.
Clark and Lex settled down at the table with the reporter and her friend. Lex ordered a cup of coffee, and Clark ordered a vanilla ice cream cone.
Chloe took another bite of her sundae as the boys got settled around the table. "Tell them about the mechanic, Andy," she prompted.
"Yeah," the student pilot replied. "Well, I don't know why, but Mr. Alvin, my boss at the FBO -- that's Fixed Base Operator, by the way; it means a business that's permanently located at an airport -- he won't refer customers to Hakes's mechanic anymore. He always tells people to go to the Ag -- that's agricultural -- guys' mechanic instead, even though he takes forever to get around to working on other people's planes. I asked him about it, and he said that Nick Johnson just gives him a creepy feeling, and when I've been flying as long as he has, I'll know to trust that feeling, too."
Clark remembered the look that Lex had given Johnson when they met the man briefly outside. He supposed that living with Lionel Luthor for twenty years might well be the equivalent of twenty years of flying a plane when it came to developing the ability to pick up on something creepy.
"Where's Mr. Johnson from?" Lex asked.
"Gotham City," Andy answered. "John Rankin, the new pilot Hakes hired after his wife died, is from there, too. Johnson was the one who recommended him, and I know for a fact that the only other guy who applied for that job got in a car crash the day of the interview."
Clark and Lex looked at each other, but it was Chloe who said it. "That seems really suspicious."
"You don't know the half of it, Chloe," Clark said. He told her all about the adventures he and Lex had encountered after Lana's party the night before.
"Pete came around to the house first thing this morning, so I knew about part of it," Chloe said, "but somebody blew up your car? That's awful!"
Lex smiled sadly at her. "Thank you."
Andy looked at his watch. "Man, is that the time? I gotta go. I have some work I promised to finish before my flying exam this afternoon. If I do well, I'll be a licensed pilot by this time tomorrow!"
Chloe beamed at him and wished him luck. He looked like he was hoping for a kiss or something, but he had to hurry back to work without one.
"There's definitely something going on here," Chloe declared.
The two boys agreed. They all finished their snacks and paid for them. Then Chloe drove them back to the Kent Farm.
Clark and Lex arranged for Chloe and Pete to meet them at the Talon after supper, so that all the friends could share what they'd found out. Chloe was going to hit the computer a little, and Pete was going to pay a visit to the sheriff. Lex wanted to check up on his company, and Clark had chores he needed to do, but he refused to let the older boy go back to the mansion. They finally reached a compromise.
Lex swore upon his mother's grave that he would yell for help if anything even remotely unusual happened, and Clark left him alone in the farmhouse with his laptop and the phone to attend to LexCorp. Lex didn't know how Clark was supposed to be able to hear him from out in the middle of the fields, but he didn't want to ask, either. He knew it wouldn't do any good. Sometimes being friends with Clark made him so mad he wanted to smash things, but being Lex Luthor was all about self control these days, so he didn't.
Mrs. Kent came back from delivering produce and baked goods to her customers in town; Clark and his dad came back in from their work; Lex closed up the laptop, and everyone sat down to supper. As always, Lex was struck by the dichotomy: the Kents treated him almost like a member of the family when he was in their home, but they obstinately refused to let him near their secrets.
"You're very quiet tonight, Lex," Mrs. Kent observed as she spooned stew onto his plate.
Lex smiled at her. "My father's company just bid a contract out from under LexCorp. I guess I'm in a bad mood."
"I'm sorry about that," Clark said. He looked like he felt guilty. "If I'd let you go back into the office instead of keeping you here on the farm all day, I bet you would've been able to stop him."
"It's not your fault, Clark," Lex claimed. "Don't feel bad. It probably wouldn't have made any difference."
Then Mr. Kent started talking about a new bull calf he'd seen over at Pomeroy's, and the table grew cheerful again.
Supper finished and the dishes done, Clark and Lex checked Lex's convertible over carefully and headed into town.
They found that Chloe and Pete were already at the Talon. The boys ordered coffee and sat down.
Pete was the first to speak. "I went down to the sheriff's office. That guy who followed you from Lex's house has a record as long as your arm -- burglary to start with, then arson and extortion. He was even arrested for murder once, but a witness disappeared, and there was no conviction. All in Gotham City."
"So all the criminals who've been after us so far have been from Gotham," Clark mused. "That's got to mean something."
"The parts were sent from Gotham," Lex put in.
"The mechanic and the new pilot at Hakes's are from Gotham, too," Chloe interjected.
"So we've got a lot of guys from Gotham City," Pete said thoughtfully, "and some of them are thugs. What's been happening up there lately, to drive the roaches out into the countryside?"
Pete looked at Chloe, and at the same time as each other, they said, "Batman!"
"But why here?" Clark asked. "What's in Smallville that brings it to the attention of Gotham City crooks?"
"Well, there's LexCorp, and there's still quite a bit of LuthorCorp business done in Lowell County. They could be trying to get a toehold in Metropolis via our assets here," Lex speculated.
"Oh!" Chloe exclaimed. "Andy told me that most of the business Hakes Air Transport does is delivering banking records from Lowell County to Metropolis! If a person were diverting those..."
"The possibilities for fraud would be tremendous," Lex finished for her. "Both my father and myself do quite a bit of our corporate banking from here."
They all sat silently for a moment, drinking their coffees. Lana came over. "What's up, guys?" she asked cutely, tilting her head to one side.
Pete smiled up at her. "It looks like we might have stumbled onto an organized crime ring, right here in Smallville. They seem to be operating out of Hakes Air Transport at Smallville Municipal Airport."
"You don't think poor Mr. Hakes is a criminal, do you?" Lana blinked a few times. "I always feel so sorry for him!" She nodded emphatically.
"No," Clark said. "I don't think he's in on it. I think those two guys are using him."
Chloe nodded, and Lex said, "I agree. He's obviously depressed and unable to control what's going on in his own place of business."
"So sad," Lana mused, gazing soulfully into the distance. "They never recovered his wife's body. He doesn't even have a grave to comfort him." She wandered off to serve another customer.
Clark, Lex, and Chloe all looked at each other. (Pete was still watching Lana walk away.)
"I'll consult with my bankers," Lex volunteered.
"And I'll check out the investigation of that crash," Chloe declared.
"And we'll meet here again tomorrow morning, around eight?" Clark suggested.
Chloe and Lex agreed immediately.
"What?" Pete asked.
Everyone got up from the table. "Lex and I'll walk you home, Pete, and we'll tell you on the way," Clark said. "I'm not letting anybody grab either one of my bald friends again!"
We Need a Plan!
When Clark and Lex got back to the Kent Farm, Jonathan Kent was still up. He was in the barn working on an engine that Pomeroy had asked him to take a look at. When the boys drove up, he went out to greet them, wiping his hands on an oily rag.
"Well? You two just about got this mystery solved?"
Lex was affronted, but Clark easily replied, "Not yet. Chloe's got a theory, though."
Clark and Lex followed Jonathan back into the barn while he put away his tools. "What's that?" Clark's dad asked.
"It appears as if organized criminals from Gotham City may have infiltrated Hakes Air Transport Company in order to obtain access to LexCorp and LuthorCorp banking records and perpetrate fraud in Metropolis," Lex explained.
"And we think maybe Mrs. Hakes was murdered as the start of the scheme," Clark added.
"That's some theory." Jonathan finished stowing away all his things, and the three men headed into the house. "Do you have any proof?"
"Not really," Clark said, getting the jug of milk out of the refrigerator. He took a swig from the bottle and handed it to his dad, who drank also. Then Clark took another swallow and offered it to Lex, who declined with a tiny shudder of distaste.
"I'll go online right now," Lex volunteered, "and see what I can find out from my bankers." He left the kitchen quickly, before Clark could offer him a mouthful of regurgitated squid or anything, and booted up his laptop at the living room table.
Lex could hear Clark and his dad still talking. "Chloe said she'd check out the investigation of Mrs. Hakes's crash, and we're all supposed to meet again tomorrow morning at eight." Clark's voice became quieter, but Lex could still just make out what he was saying. "I was thinking I might try to get some of the morning's regular work out of the way tonight, so we can get an early start. Is that okay?"
There was a fairly lengthy pause, as if Mr. Kent were considering. Lex looked away from his screen, and found Jonathan's faded blue eyes looking at him from the kitchen. He returned to his computer, wondering hungrily what exactly was up with the Kents. Finally he heard Jonathan's voice again. "I reckon that'd be all right. Let me make you out a list."
Clark came into the living room while his dad rummaged around the kitchen looking for a pencil. "Find anything funny?" he asked Lex.
"I think perhaps I have. There are several questionable transactions in the past two weeks, none large enough to raise immediate warning flags. I've notified the bank, and they should be on the lookout now." Lex closed his laptop and looked up at Clark. "Nothing that screams of proof, though."
"What we need," Clark said, "is some sort of a plan."
Jonathan Kent came in and clapped Clark on the shoulder. He handed him a little slip of paper. "Here you go, son. This should cut down on the chores in the morning. We'll do the two-man jobs early tomorrow, so you can still make that appointment with Chloe and Pete."
"Thanks, Dad," Clark said. He got up and went out, carefully not pouring on the speed until he was out of sight of the house.
Jonathan turned to Lex. "You look tired, Lex. Better get on up to bed. Clark'll be up pretty soon -- I didn't give him much to do."
This Plan Stinks!
Sunday morning was an exact duplicate of Saturday morning, as far as Lex could tell. Same loud Kents, same disgusting singing, same ungodly early hour of the morning -- the only difference was what song.
"Morning has broken, like the first morning. Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird...."
Clark was attempting to sing way too high for his voice. It was awful. "Clark!" Lex yelped.
"Oh, sorry, Lex," Clark whispered. "I'll try to be quieter." Absurd booted tiptoeing ensued.
"This is insane," Lex fumed, giving up and rolling out of bed. "We have to catch these guys so I can go home!"
"I'm sure Chloe will have more information for us," Clark reassured him.
"Anyway," Lex continued grumbling, "aren't you people supposed to be having a day of rest or something?"
Clark laughed at him. "Us people? Don't know if you've ever noticed, but my family doesn't actually go to church."
Lex was a little startled to realize that was true. Now he was curious -- was this one of the things he wasn't able to ask about? Stupid Kents and their stupid secrets.
Fortunately, Clark volunteered information. "I think my dad may have slugged the minister once."
Out in the hallway, a voice was raised in song. "Praise for the singing, praise for the morning, praise for them springing, fresh from the word." At least Mr. Kent was in the right key.
Lex muttered to himself the whole time he was getting dressed.
By the time he got downstairs, Mrs. Kent had scrambled some Kent Organic eggs and cooked quite a few pancakes. Clark and his dad were almost done eating, and nearly ready to go outside and get to their work.
"Good morning, Lex," Mrs. Kent greeted him in a friendly voice. "Did you sleep well?"
Lex swallowed the retort he wanted to come out with at first, and instead replied. "Yes, thank you, Mrs. Kent. It's very nice of you to have me."
"Don't be silly, Lex; we're always glad to have you stay. And call me Martha."
"Thank you, Martha." Lex started his breakfast.
Clark and Jonathan finished up and went out to tend to the farm. "I'll be back really soon, Lex," Clark said. "Then we can get over to town."
Lex nodded and drank coffee. Awake would be a better way to face this. Mrs. Kent finished her own breakfast and started on the day's orders of baked goods.
By the time Clark came back into the house, about 7:30, Lex was more alert and more agreeable. He'd checked his messages, and he knew that his bank had been alerted to any possible fraud. It was nice to hear that professional bankers agreed that the transactions he'd thought looked peculiar were actually suspicious. Lex was a skilled man of business, and probably a genius, but he was still only twenty-two, and though he never let anyone see that he was unsure of anything, sometimes he was.
Clark kissed his mom good-bye on the cheek. Lex tried to conceal how much he envied his young friend for still having a mother. The boys checked over Lex's car and drove to the Talon.
Chloe was already there, defending a booth from all comers and drinking cup after cup of coffee. "Hi, guys!" she said loudly as soon as Clark and Lex came in.
"Morning, Chlo'," Clark responded. Lex just nodded his greeting as the boys slid into the booth. "Where's Pete?" Clark asked.
"His mom signed him and some of his brothers up for a thing at their church," Chloe told them. "I guess he's not in on this today."
"That's too bad," Clark said, as Lex signaled the waitress to bring them more coffee. "Did you find out anything?"
"Sure did," the caffeine-addicted reporter told him, holding her cup out for Lana's friend Chelsea to pour her more coffee. "Mrs. Hakes was taking a shipment to Glenwood Springs, a special order. The plane went down somewhere in Colorado, west of Denver. Civil Air Patrol volunteers searched all the likely places, but there was no sign of the plane or of her. The interesting thing is right here." She pointed at a pile of printouts she had laid out on the table. "Guess who one of the CAP volunteers was?"
The boys looked at her blankly.
"John Rankin!" Chloe exclaimed. They still just looked at her. Chloe got exasperated. "John Rankin, Mr. Johnson's friend from Gotham who got the pilot job at Hakes because the only other applicant's car got crashed into? Remember?"
"Wow," Clark said. "That's very suspicious."
"Ya think?" Chloe retorted snappishly. When Clark blinked at her in surprise, she apologized. "I'm sorry, Clark. I was up all night finding this stuff, and my dad caught me still awake at 5:30 a.m. and got all mad. We had a fight, and I'm under strict orders to go home and go to bed no later than 9:00 this morning. So I won't be able to be in on today's sleuthing, either."
"You've already done so much, Chloe. We really appreciate it, don't we, Lex?"
Lex looked up from Chloe's papers. "Yes. This is first-rate work. What was in Mrs. Hakes's last shipment, anyhow?"
"Meteor rocks," Chloe replied. She didn't notice Clark's quickly stifled look of alarm, but Lex did. "Somebody who gave his name as Vincent Carruthers ordered a bunch of meteor rocks from Hamilton Geologic Specimens, to be flown directly into Glenwood Springs by Hakes Air Transport. I can't find any such person in Glenwood Springs. I haven't made a thorough enough search to be sure, but it is another suspicious thing."
"Do you know which area Rankin was searching?" Clark asked.
"It's all in there." Yawning hugely, Chloe waved her hand at the sheaf of papers in Lex's hand. "Excuse me. Until Dad grounded me, I was thinking the thing to do would be to go up in a plane and re-search the places Rankin did. Probably he found the crash and didn't tell anyone. I bet there might be clues in the wreckage."
"That's pretty much what I was thinking," Clark responded.
"I do know a pilot," Chloe added. "Andy passed everything yesterday. He can take passengers up now, and he's all checked out for mountain flying."
Clark and Lex looked at each other. As it happened, they were both afraid of heights.
Lex swallowed. "Put his phone number on one of those pieces of paper. We'll give him a call and arrange to go out on a search."
He hated this plan.
Up, Up and Away!
Andy was more than happy to take Clark and Lex up in a plane. He refused Lex's offer to pay him, explaining that he didn't have a Commercial Endorsement on his pilot's license, but he gladly let Lex pay for his and Clark's two-thirds of the aircraft rental and gas.
The plane was a Cessna 172, a little high-wing four-seater just a few years older than Lex. He hated it on sight. Clark spent a long time in the bathroom, probably psyching himself up to go into the air in this tiny rattletrap, while Lex followed Andy around the plane.
Andy had a piece of paper he kept consulting and muttering to himself. Finally Lex couldn't stand it anymore. He asked, "What are you doing?"
"Oh!" Andy said, looking up at him suddenly. It looked like he'd forgotten Lex was there. "I'm going over my checklist for the walkaround pre-flight inspection. I check over the tires and the struts and all the surfaces. I make sure I have all my correct paperwork and charts. I check the fluids -- in fact, I was just going to check the gas now." Andy reached into the back of the plane and got a little container from a plastic bin that was there. It looked like a clear plastic measuring cup with a little spike on it. "See, I reach way under here..." Andy said, reaching under the plane, "and put this thing in this, and fuel comes out." He got back up and showed the fuel to Lex. It was a pale blue color, and it smelled like gasoline. "I want to make sure it's the right color, and it smells okay, and there's no water in it. This looks fine. Then I climb up here..." Andy put his foot on the wing strut and hauled himself up, reaching over the top of the fuselage, "and open this, and check that we're full up, and pour the test sample back in." The pilot matched his actions to his words. "And close the thingie back up tight -- fuel cap." He hopped down.
"Well," Lex said grudgingly, "you look like you know what you're doing."
Andy beamed at him. "I do know what I'm doing! It'll be great!"
Lex didn't look convinced. "Isn't there a bigger plane we could use?" he asked.
"Nope!" Andy answered cheerfully. "The Cessna 172 is the only plane I'm checked-out to fly. Maybe you should go use the restroom, and tell your friend we're about ready to go here."
Lex sighed heavily. Then he was disgusted by the lingering reek of avgas. "Fine," he said, and went to fetch Clark.
It didn't improve Lex's mood when he found that he'd have to sit in the tiny backseat of the airplane. Both Andy and Clark were considerably taller than he was. He wished he could back out of this expedition, but he didn't dare. Clark would never tell him for sure, of course, but Lex strongly suspected that the meteoritic fragments that littered the countryside around Smallville were uniquely poisonous to his friend. If Mrs. Hakes had been carrying meteor rocks in her plane, Clark really shouldn't go near the wreckage.
Andy had more sheets of paper with mimeographed checklists on them for starting the plane, taking off, and cruising at altitude. By the time the three boys were well on their way to Colorado, Lex was extremely tired of Andy's continual paper-ruffling and muttering. He was also a little nauseous from the smell of gasoline that, he assumed, was coming from the fuel sampling gage stowed in the plastic bin under his seat. His head was starting to pound as well, from a combination of the bone-shaking noise of the engine and the tightness and scratchiness of the grubby used headphones he'd been given to wear.
At least they had a heck of a view. The Cessna's wings were on top of the fuselage, providing a completely unobstructed field of vision down towards the ground. Lex found that he had to stop looking out the window after a short time, however. At least no one could notice him being cowardly about it.
"This is about the place that Mr. Rankin's search started!" Andy yelled over the little plane's scratchy intercom system.
"Right!" Clark replied. "We should all keep our sharp eyes out!"
Lex could see Clark's jaw work as the dark-haired boy steeled himself to look out over thousands of feet of empty air below them. Clark squinted intently out the window, scanning the mountainous ground.
Lex's search was more diffident. "There are a million places down there that a person could go down and never be found," he complained. "Why don't planes have some sort of an electronic transmitter that goes off if they crash?"
"They do," Andy assured him earnestly. "Every plane has an ELT, or Emergency Locator Transmitter, and I've been monitoring the Emergency Channel since takeoff! You saw me check that our antenna was there and in good shape when I was doing the pre-flight on this plane, remember? Unfortunately they sometimes break."
"Or a saboteur could make sure that it broke," Clark added.
"Mr. Alvin said Mr. Hakes says that sometimes he still hears Mrs. Hakes's voice over the Unicom," Andy volunteered. "He can't make out any words, but he says he still hears her voice. Mr. Alvin says he's probably just hearing some lady coming into or out of Lowell County Exec. We use the same frequency they do."
"Great," Lex muttered. "All this needed was a ghost."
"I think I see something!" Clark yelled. He pointed out his window. "Over there, in that little canyon -- go over there!"
Andy banked the plane.
Then there was a sudden explosion.
Leap of Faith
The next few minutes were very confusing.
The front part of the passenger cabin was briefly full of flame, but then there was a big whooshing noise, and it went out in less than a second. Lex could almost swear that Clark had blown the fire out. Andy was unconscious, but Clark had apparently shielded him from most of the burning. Clark's big body and the seats in front of Lex had blocked the fire from getting near him. However, the engine noise had stopped, and Lex could see, in the little glimpses he had available out through the front window, that the engine cowling was streaming with flame.
Lex swallowed a scream as he felt the plane pitch forward. They were going to crash!
As usual during an emergency, Clark seemed to become more confident and competent than he ever was under normal circumstances. He had Andy's seat belt unfastened somehow -- had he actually torn it loose by hand? Clark grabbed the pilot's unconscious body and pulled him into his lap. Then he turned to Lex.
"Undo your seat belt, Lex," the farmboy said calmly, "and hold onto me for all you're worth."
"What?" Lex gasped. He couldn't believe it, but he felt his hands unfastening the safety belt. It seemed he was following instructions today.
Using only one hand, Clark broke off the back of his seat and tucked it out of the way. "C'mon, Lex," he urged. "Grab hold. We don't have much time left to jump."
"Jump?" Lex quavered. He put his arms around Clark and held on tight. "I don't know if you've noticed, but we don't have a parachute."
Clark's strong right arm went around Lex's waist. "I don't know if you've noticed, but our pilot's unconscious, and our plane's on fire. Help me hang on to Andy. Chloe'll never forgive us if we drop him."
Lex adjusted his grip so he was helping to hold all three of them together. "I hate this plan, Clark."
"Just trust me," Clark said. He kicked the right passenger door of the Cessna clean off the plane with one blow. Securely holding Andy and Lex in his arms, he jumped.
Who Needs a Parachute?
Andy's unconscious body was limp against Clark's left side. Lex was holding on for dear life, face pressed tight against Clark's shoulder. Clark could hear him muttering, "Oh man oh man oh man," over and over again, but he promised himself that he'd never bring it up. Bailing out of an airplane, no matter how flaming, had to be hard on his friend, especially on nothing more than Clark's say-so. Clark figured he owed Lex for this one -- even Jonathan Kent would see that he had to tell Lex the truth now. Wouldn't he?
They weren't really plummeting much. It was almost more like gliding, and Clark could steer better now than he'd been able to during the big Spring Formal Tornado. For one thing, the wind was all going in one direction.
It sure was a lucky thing that he got calmer in an emergency instead of more panicky. Clark wondered if that was an alien thing, or a Kent thing. Maybe it was a Clark thing -- his mom was usually pretty levelheaded during a crisis, whereas his dad had more of a tendency to just grab for his shotgun.
Clark adjusted their path again, so that they'd come down in the same little canyon where he thought he'd seen a wrecked plane from the air. He watched uneasily as the fiery Cessna 172 crashed into a mountain and disintegrated into a random drift of parts. It wouldn't be long now.
As the hard, rocky ground rushed up to meet him, Clark lifted up on Lex and Andy so their feet would be sure to not hit before his did. He pulled the force of the landing up through his feet into his knees, and let it dissipate into the muscles of his legs. By the time Lex's feet touched the dirt, they'd already landed. Nobody even fell over.
Lex looked up at him, blinking. His blue-gray eyes were startlingly close, and bright with wind. "We're alive," Lex breathed.
Clark beamed at him. "That's right."
"How did you...." Lex clamped his mouth shut. Clark could see his jaw working. Then he said, "Never mind." Lex pried his shaking hands from around Clark's body and tried putting his weight on his own feet. They held.
Clark watched Lex pull himself together. Once it seemed that Lex would be okay, he turned his attention to Andy, who was still unconscious and held in Clark's arms.
Andy wasn't in that great of shape. X-ray vision quickly revealed that his skull and spine weren't cracked, but his right shinbone was. The pilot's hands were covered in blisters, too, although Clark had been quick enough to shield the rest of him from any burns. Clark adjusted his grip on the college boy's body to a more secure over-the-threshold style, making sure to cushion the head against any sudden movements. Living in Smallville, Clark had a lot of experience with his friends getting concussions.
"How is he?" Lex asked.
"He has a broken leg and some burns, but I think that's all. Well, concussion probably."
Lex deliberately didn't ask how Clark could tell. "We should probably go look at that crashed plane -- that other crashed plane. Stay behind me, all right, Clark?"
"Right." Clark was grateful to Lex for taking the lead on the approaching-meteor-rocks part of this doomed expedition, and for not making him acknowledge that out loud. "Look out for rattlesnakes," he added, surreptitiously enjoying Lex's little start at the reminder.
"Yes. Snakes. Of course. You be careful to not drop the pilot."
They cautiously approached the wreckage of Hakes' Air Transport Company's Cessna 180. Mrs. Hakes had done a good job of putting the old tail-dragger down in one piece. Scorch marks all over the nose of the plane showed that it had suffered from the same sort of trouble that the 172 had.
Clark stopped short and took a step back when they were still about twenty feet away from the aircraft. Lex looked back at him and said, "Okay, then. You and Andy stay here." Lex went on towards the old plane alone.
Lex picked his way carefully through the scratchy plants and big rocks that covered the floor of the canyon. He really didn't want to meet a snake, especially not a rattlesnake. Another thing he really didn't want to encounter was a body that had been lying here for almost a month.
The plane had been crash-landed with its nose facing downhill. There was a big gouge through the brush that showed how it had gotten to its resting-place. One of the wings had been completely severed from the fuselage, and it rested against a huge boulder several yards uphill from the rest of the airplane. The landing gear was crumpled and broken, and the tail segment was badly bent, but the vehicle was mostly upright, and the passenger compartment seemed to be all in one piece. Lex climbed carefully up onto the lip of the gaping doorway.
Much to his surprise, there was no corpse in the plane.
There were plenty of meteor rocks, though. At least ten pounds of them were heaped in the cargo compartment (also known as the area previously occupied by the back seat.) There were some pieces of wood back there, too, but Lex thought there weren't enough of them to add up to a whole crate. There was a little stack of gear, similar to what he'd seen Andy use when he did his pre-flight inspection on the 172, but its plastic holder was missing.
The control panel of the old plane was partly taken apart; wires were dangling from the radios. A gray nylon backpack gaped open in the right seat. There was a little red toolkit peeking out of its main compartment and a few empty granola bar wrappers tucked carefully into the mesh front pocket.
Whatever had happened to Mrs. Hakes, it sure looked like she'd survived the original crash.
Lex momentarily contemplated the necessity of searching this rocky canyon to locate her body, and decided to go back to Clark and tell him what he'd found out.
He was clambering cautiously down from the cockpit, when his attention was distracted by a small, bright red fire extinguisher lying on the rocky ground near one of the battered front wheels. He picked it up and shook it, noticing as he did that there were indications that a few of the scrubby sticker-bushes around the nose of the plane had been on fire for a little while. The fire extinguisher sounded empty. He carried it back to Clark.
When Lex got back to the other two boys, Andy was awake. Clark had removed his plaid flannel shirt and torn it into strips. He had Andy lying down in the shade of a big rock, and he was binding up his broken leg with a couple of sticks to make a splint.
"Well," Lex declared, "Mrs. Hakes didn't die right away after the crash. There's no body in the plane, and I found this on the ground. It looks like she put out the fire and tried to repair her radio and broke up the cargo crate for wood. I don't have any idea what might have happened after that." Lex sat down next to Andy, in the shade. He hated sitting in the dirt, but he hated sunburn even more.
"You. How did we? We should be dead!" Andy exclaimed.
"Welcome to Smallville," Lex muttered under his breath.
"It's okay, Andy. It'll be okay," Clark soothed the injured boy. Tying one last knot securely in the makeshift splint he said, "There. The bone's nice and straight, and that should hold it for a while."
"But, but, we should be dead!" Andy spluttered again.
"It's okay. It'll be okay," Clark repeated. "I'll make sure you get home safe. All of us." He patted Andy's shoulder lightly with his big honey-colored hand.
"But, we, the plane!" Andy continued.
"Breathe, okay?" Lex instructed. "Stop panicking and just go with the flow. Haven't spent much time in Smallville, have you?"
Andy finally stopped protesting and started to breathe deeply. His eyes were still wide and scared.
Lex turned to his friend. "What now, Clark?"
"Halloo!" came an unexpected shout from the scrubby hillside beyond the plane.
Clark and Lex looked around, startled. (Andy was still concentrating on breathing.) A woman was carefully picking her way down towards the canyon floor, waving her right hand, which was wrapped in grubby-looking bandages. Her hair was gray and untidy, and her clothes were ripped and dirty. In her left hand she was carrying the plastic gear caddy that Lex had noticed was missing from the plane. As she hurried down to them, a little water slopped out of it.
"Mrs. Hakes!" Clark shouted, beaming. He got up and looked as if he was going to run to meet her, but then his smile faded and he seemed to notice how close to the kryptonite-filled airplane he'd have to go to get to her. He looked pleadingly at Lex.
Lex heaved a sigh. "Fine," he said, very quietly, and got to his feet. He was pretty scratched up by the time he met the middle-aged pilot and took her heavy container of water from her, but her grateful smile made it worthwhile.
"Thank God you've come," Mrs. Hakes said, and kissed him on the cheek.
Jenny Hakes was a jolly, good-natured woman who didn't let much of anything upset her for long. She also sprinkled her conversation liberally with quotes from the Bible. By the time Lex got her and her improvised water-bucket back to Andy's shady spot and introduced her to everyone, her conversational style had already begun to get on his nerves.
"I knew that all would be well," she told the three boys. "The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear Him, and delivers them. Psalms 34."
Clark didn't seem to have the same problem with her speech patterns that Lex did. Probably he had been inoculated against them by his own father's penchant for platitudes. "How did you manage to survive, Mrs. Hakes?" Clark asked.
"Please call me Jenny, Clark. All of you." The leathery face beamed at them. "I brought my poor old crate down as well as I could -- brush is a wonder for bleeding off speed, you know." Andy nodded. "Lost a wing, and that helped too. I'm thankful I didn't hit that boulder head-on!" The weather-beaten pilot laughed heartily. "Had my fire-extinguisher, of course, used that right away. Whenever you fly cross-country you should have some food and water, just in case. Of course, that ran out a while ago. Thank God I've always been a fat woman! Brush also usually means water. There's a little spring up thataways." She gestured with her bandaged hand. "Got off pretty lightly with the injuries, too, just burned one hand. I honestly haven't opened it up since I wrapped it -- it hurts like blazes, and I'm afraid to look at it, but it smells all right, and I just hope for the best." The kind brown eyes turned sharp. "How did you three manage to survive?"
Lex and Andy both looked at Clark. Clark blushed a deep red and stammered, "Survive?"
"Look to Him that you may be radiant with joy, and your faces may not blush with shame," Jenny quoted idly, studying Clark's face. "I heard your plane, dear. Cessna 172, I'm betting. Probably Mr. Alvin's, right, Andy?"
The young pilot nodded. He looked like the shock of his injuries was wearing off, and the pain was setting in.
"I heard you flying nearby, and started rushing back down from the spring so I could be near my plane and try to get your attention with the radio. I've been attempting to piece together one working set from the four damaged ones, but I don't really think I've managed. Still, the Lord helps those who help themselves. I couldn't just lie down and die!" She laughed again. "I heard the explosion, and I heard your plane crash. I'm thankful that you made it here, but it's not the easiest thing to understand."
"For me neither," Andy gritted out. "We should be dead! When the plane blew like that, I knew we were dead! What happened?
Clark had shrunk in on himself so that he wasn't even recognizable as the young hero who had leapt through hundreds of feet of empty space and brought Lex and Andy safely to the ground. The blush seemed permanent now, and he stared at the ground as if his head were entirely too heavy to lift.
Lex decided he had to step up now if this situation were going to be salvaged. Jenny still seemed open to any explanation, and he was hoping he could put Andy's hostility down to the pain of the broken leg. Striving to look casually in-control, just as he did whenever he had to explain something to his father, Lex steepled his fingers together and took a deep, but very quiet, breath.
"I don't know if you were in Smallville in 1989, Mrs. Hakes," he began.
The woman's laughter startled him a little. "Of course! Of course. And call me Jenny. You boys would have been little then. Were you all caught out in it?"
"Huh?" Andy asked.
Clark looked up hopefully at the light tone of the old pilot's response. He licked his lips nervously. "Andy's from Grandville," he said.
"That's right; I think I knew that about you, Andy. Well, dear, you don't need to fret," she said. "God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform. Years ago, in Smallville, there was a huge and deadly meteorite shower. Many people were killed, and others were changed. Some went mad from it, but not all. For who has known the mind of the Lord?"
"Clark and I were both caught out in it, as you say. I went bald that day, and was cured of my asthma. I've never been sick a day since, and I heal fast. Clark," Lex gritted his jaw for a moment, then smirked and went on. "Well, Clark hides his light under a bushel, but it's clear that he's not exactly...."
"I'm fast," Clark gulped out, interrupting him. "And strong, and hard to hurt. We jumped from the plane before it crashed, and I held onto Lex and Andy so I could take the force of the landing." He still couldn't look anyone in the eye. "Please don't tell anyone," he whispered.
"I won't," Jenny promised. "Andy?" she prompted.
"Okay," the young pilot replied, with an awed expression on his face. "But why not?"
"My dad," Clark started, still looking at the dirt, "He's, well, we've always been afraid, that somebody would find out and take me away from them, from my parents and the farm, to study me." Blue-green eyes met blue-gray. "Please don't tell anyone," he repeated.
Lex quirked a crooked smile at him. "I swear I'll keep your secrets, Clark."
"Jonathan Kent," Mrs. Hakes mused. "I was there the day he punched out Reverend Carlson. That man would rather be right than President."
"He'll never be either," Lex muttered grumpily.
"Lex!" Clark exclaimed. "That's not fair!"
Lex smiled up at him. Clark ducked his head, then smiled back. It looked like everything might still be okay between them. "I know," Lex admitted. He ran his hands over his head, grimacing at the feel of the grit he'd gotten on them. "It's just -- we've found Mrs. Hakes, Jenny, but we don't have a working plane or a working radio. We're stuck in the middle of Colorado with no food...."
"There's a little blackberry patch up by the spring," Jenny interrupted.
Lex glared at her, and she smiled at him. "With very little food," Lex fumed, "and we still don't know who was stealing my electronics parts, or have any proof against Johnson or Rankin!"
"Well, I think perhaps Nick Johnson isn't his real name," Jenny said. "I found him looking through some papers the day before I took off on this flight, and one of them had the name 'Nick Sloane' at the top of it. He swept them away in a hurry, and I didn't think anything of it until after the crash."
"I think I've heard of a Nick Sloane," Lex offered.
"Wasn't he wanted for fraud last summer?" Clark wondered.
"Maybe. I'm sure it was something like that. We could certainly investigate it if we could ever get back to civilization!"
"Once the Feds get a look at the wreckage of our planes, that will be a charge against him," Andy put in. "They take bombs in planes very seriously, even in little planes like these."
"The Feds?" Clark asked nervously.
"Sure!" Andy replied. "As soon as we can get to a phone, we're required to notify the NTSB -- that's National Transportation Safety Board -- of plane crashes involving injuries. Then they notify the FAA -- Federal Aviation Administration -- and they bring in the FBI -- Federal Bureau of Investigation -- as needed. Bombs mean FBI, for sure."
"FBI?" Clark repeated, aghast. He looked kind of pale.
Lex considered. "We can't have the FBI asking how we survived that crash."
"I'll end up in a lab," Clark breathed. He swallowed hard. "Dissected."
"Not going to happen, Clark," Lex assured him.
"But we have to!" Andy insisted. "We have to report the crashes, and they have to investigate them! It's regulations! Besides, if they don't, then Nick whatsisname gets away with bombing our planes!"
"Maybe there's another way," Jenny speculated. "How fast are you, Clark?"
Clark gave her a deer-in-the-headlights look. "Pretty fast. Why?"
"If we work it right, we can report just one crash to the government, and keep the 172's quiet."
"Mrs. Hakes!" Lex pretended to be shocked. Was this old bible-thumper suggesting they lie?
"We wouldn't be bearing false witness against anybody," she clarified. "Render up to Caesar that which is Caesar's, which Clark isn't. The only one who might be hurt by this idea I've got would be you, Andy."
"What is it, then?" Andy asked.
It All Comes Together
Clark's first trip was back home to the farm to pick up some food and some water bottles. While he was there, he also dumped all the books out of his school backpack, and grabbed a couple of hats and flannel shirts and the kitchen first-aid kit and a tarp. The huge tumbled rocks that had blocked Jenny's attempts to walk out of the canyon were no barrier to him, and he didn't have any trouble finding the place again, either. Just another convenient feature of his alien brain -- Clark never seemed to get lost.
When Clark set down his backpack full of supplies in front of Andy's rock, Lex looked up from his Napoleon watch and said, "Thirty-seven minutes."
"Hot dog!" Andy exclaimed. "I don't believe it! You're jet-propelled!"
Mrs. Hakes unpacked the fruit and muffins out of Clark's backpack and declared, "Hallelujah! Praise God and all his blessings!" She gave Clark a big smile before she bit into a Kent Organic apple. "Thank you, child, and may the good Lord bless you and keep you forever!"
Clark blushed and shuffled his feet a little. "What next?" he asked.
Lex explained the plan that he, Andy, and Jenny had refined while Clark was gone. Clark picked Andy up carefully, and took the young pilot and the Kent's big canvas tarpaulin on a quick trip up the mountainside, to the debris field left from the crash of Mr. Alvin's Cessna 172.
Meanwhile, Lex unpacked the first-aid kit from Clark's backpack (resignedly putting on one of Jonathan Kent's ugly fishing hats to protect his sensitive scalp from sunburn) and nerved himself to unwrap Jenny's burnt hand.
By the time Clark and Andy returned to the rest of the group with a big bundle of plane parts, Lex had finished cleaning and re-bandaging the hand. He was proud of himself for not having displayed any of the revulsion he'd felt at the sight of the blackened and blistered flesh. Jenny looked a little pale, but she busied herself with praises to God that the hand didn't seem infected, and thanked Lex profusely once he was done.
Clark set Andy down gently. "Do you feel up to looking at these parts, Mrs. Hakes?" he asked. "Andy said the data plate from the tail-section and the part of the engine-case with the serial number on it. Does that seem like enough?"
"Did you bring back the whole engine, dear? Several of the engine parts have serial numbers, too."
"Yes, ma'am. It was only broken into three pieces." Clark unrolled the tarp and picked through it, then showed Mrs. Hakes all the engine parts he'd gathered.
"That should do. Do you understand where to find my old 172?"
"It's in the barn out past the airfield, right? Where Merrick runs his beef cattle?"
"That's right. Replace the engine with this one, and swap out the data plates, too. Are you sure you can take Andy back with you on the same trip as all those parts?"
"Piece of cake," Clark replied with a grin. "And just leave all the rest of these pieces in the barn?"
"That would be fine. We were just using that old junker for parts, anyhow."
Clark easily lifted Andy into his arms, and slung the tarp full of crashed airplane bits over his shoulder. "Hang on, Andy," he said, "and tuck your head in."
"Are you two sure you've got your story straight?" Lex asked before they could speed away.
Andy sighed heavily. It was going to be embarrassing to have to say he'd run a plane off the end of the runway only one day after getting his license, but it was undoubtedly the best plan. No one would be too hard on a beginner, and he couldn't fly for eight weeks anyhow on account of his leg. The most likely enforcement action would be a 90-day suspension and being required to take a few more hours of instruction. Clark and Lex had promised to sing his praises to Chloe in return for his cooperation, but that wasn't really necessary. He couldn't let a guy get dissected for saving his life, after all!
"I'm sure," Andy said. "I know just what we're going to claim happened. I just wish it wasn't going to make me look like such an idiot!"
"There, there, Andy. The tree is known by its fruit. Everyone who knows you knows you're not an idiot," Mrs. Hakes reassured him. "Godspeed, boys!"
While Clark and Andy were gone, Jenny and Lex moved their little camp back to the crashed Cessna 180. Despite the thorn-bushes, the plane was less dirty and had better shade. Jenny was asleep almost as soon as she got back into her pilot's seat, leaving Lex with nothing to do but think.
So, Clark was a Meteor Mutant? It made a lot of sense, but Lex wasn't sure that it was the whole story. He wondered if his best friend would ever trust him enough to tell him the complete truth, and envied Mrs. Hakes for being able to sleep.
About an hour and a half later, Lex awoke with a start. "Lex! Hey, Lex!" Clark was yelling at him from outside the plane.
Lex shook his head to wake himself the rest of the way up, and slid out of the right-hand door of the plane. "Did everything go as planned?" he asked.
Clark beamed at him from about twenty feet away. "It went great!" Clark answered, without coming any closer. "Uh, Lex, could you come over here, so, you know...."
Lex went over to his friend. "Yeah," he said, "I know. So if you're like this because of the meteorites, why do they make you sick?" He knew he was making Clark uncomfortable, but he was grumpy and dirty and tired of being lied to.
Clark's smile had vanished, but he was still looking at Lex. "I'm not a mutant," he said very quietly and very fast. "I came in a little spaceship that crashed the same day the meteorites did."
Lex felt his eyes bug out. He was speechless. "Wow," he finally said.
Clark just looked at him.
"Wow," Lex repeated. He broke out in a huge grin. "You're an alien?" he whispered.
Clark smiled back and nodded.
"That's so cool," Lex added.
"Don't tell anyone," Clark whispered.
"I won't. Wow." After a moment, Lex got back to the matter at hand. "So, how did things go back at Smallville Municipal Airport?"
"Fine," Clark answered. "We swapped out the parts and crashed the Hakes's old 172 at the end of the runway. I set it on fire with my eyes -- yes, I can do that -- and then I took Andy to Smallville Medical Center, and he called the NTSB. Chloe's there, cheering him up. His leg's gonna be fine."
"Good," Lex replied. He was grinning again, and he made himself stop. "I'll bring the backpack and you can strap it on, and then I'll go back and wake up Mrs. Hakes and bring her out."
"Great. Oh, and Chloe looked up Nick Sloane. He really is wanted for fraud, and the picture of him she found looks sort of a lot like Nick Johnson, but with different hair and no mustache. She should be telling the authorities about it already."
"Terrific." Lex went and got the backpack, then woke Jenny up. "Time to go, Jenny," he said. "I bet Mr. Hakes will be glad to see you again."
"Oh, thank God," the woman exclaimed upon waking. "I dreamed it was all a dream." Lex helped her up and out of the plane.
With Clark's assistance, it was easy for Mrs. Hakes to get over the obstructing boulders. Well before nightfall, Clark had gotten both of his slower, weaker, human companions safely into the little ski-resort town of Crested Butte, Colorado.
They had their story together; Clark and Lex had been hiking when they saw the wrecked plane and went down to investigate. They claimed to be Rick Peterson and Frank Morgan, both students at Kansas State (Clark had been genuinely shocked when Lex produced fake ID's for the both of them. "What?" Lex asked. "I thought I might be able to take you out clubbing some day.") They'd helped Mrs. Hakes climb out of the canyon, shared their supplies with her, and walked her to safety.
The authorities were thrilled to have the pilot found safe. Jenny quietly bid Clark and Lex goodbye in the sheriff's office. "See you around, boys. Be good!" she said, and hugged them both.
Clark and Lex walked to the edge of town. Then Clark picked Lex up and ran back home to Smallville.
Ten minutes later, just outside the Smallville Municipal Airport, Lex was shaking his head to clear it. "That's remarkable," he said. "Absolutely unbelievable." He looked up at Clark and grinned. "You're faster than a McLaren F-1!"
"Yup." Clark grinned back. They saw four men in dark suits leading Sloane (alias Nick Johnson) and Rankin out of the hangar for Hakes Air Transport Company. Mr. Hakes was standing in the doorway of his office, shaking his fist at the two men from Gotham and shouting something about villainy.
The two boys nonchalantly made their way to Lex's car, which was parked in front of the terminal. "Well, that about takes care of that," Clark said.
"It looks like it," Lex replied. "With Jenny's testimony and the evidence from her crashed plane, I can't imagine that their scheme for perpetrating bank fraud will be able to go on as they had planned."
"Cool," Clark said, grinning. "We thwarted crime."
Lex suddenly stopped. "D-dang!" he exclaimed. "I still didn't get my electronic parts back!"
(Note: the thirteenth and fourteenth paragraphs of Chapter III are taken verbatim from "The Missing Chums" by Franklin W. Dixon, copyright 1962 -- only the names and location of the party have been changed -- there really was a girl dressed as a fairy princess. So Lana is practically Hardy Boys canon!)
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