TAC Table of Contents
The Smallville Boys
Larry Parker and Clark Kent solve the mystery of...
In my first Superman story for TAC, “Trouble in the Old Home Town,” Ma Kent asks Clark to return to Smallville as Superman to go up against some big time crooks who have moved in. During the course of the story I introduced the character of Larry Parker, son of retired Chief Parker who had headed the Smallville Police when Clark was a boy, and who had now assumed his father's former office. When Ma Kent told Clark the news, Clark replied, “So my old fishing buddy is now Chief of Police. Good for him.”
Ever since then (and that was in 98 or 99) I've wanted to tell a story or ten about Clark and Larry when they were boys together; and of course Lana has a place there too. The idea came to me of Clark and Larry maybe solving some mysteries, a la the Hardy Boys; with Lana as their Nancy Drew.
So here is what I hope is the first in a series of adventures of The Smallville Boys.
* * *
Clark Kent and Larry Parker had been best friends since first grade. Larry was the son of the Smallville police chief, and even at their current age of twelve he wanted nothing more than to follow in his father's footsteps one day. Clark was more the bookworm, and during the school year wrote for the school paper. But both enjoyed the outdoors, especially in the summer months, and spent much of the time during vacations camping and fishing. Like all boys in the year 1940 raised in rural areas like Smallville they had their various hiding places and haunts, and the lake was a favorite.
The hot July sun shone down on them as they sat by the shore of Smallville Lake, their fishing poles stretched out over the water and their baited lines hanging expectantly. A lunch of sandwiches and a jug of lemonade sat beside them in a basket, packed by Ma Kent. Both boys were getting hungry, so Clark handed a sandwich to Larry and took one for himself.
“Your Mom makes the best sandwiches,” Larry said.
”Your Mom's fried chicken is good too,” Clark said.
“I'm hungry,” said a third voice. “so which do you have today?”
They looked up to see Lana Lang, in plaid flannel shirt and overalls with the cuffs rolled up, coming toward them with her own fishing pole and a little pail of worms. Lana was their age, red-haired and freckled, and the boys didn't complain when she wanted to join in on fishing or playing ball. She could fish, catch, or bat just about as good as any of them. She sat down beside Clark, who handed her a sandwich.
“It's ham from our own farm,” Clark said.
Lana took a bite. “Nothing like home grown, is there?”
“Nope.” The town general store didn't need to order prepared meats from outside companies. The farms hereabouts provided them with all the chicken, ham and beef they could sell. Same with fresh produce. Smallville was a tight-knit community, in spite of all the sprawled out farms. Everybody knew everybody else. Kids growing up here attended the same schools, worshiped at the same church, and were in the same Scout troops or 4-H Club.
“So how're the fish biting?” Lana asked.
“Well,” Larry started, “I had this one on the line; must've been this long!” He stretched his arms out full width. “But he got away.”
“Was it the same one that got away last time?” Lana taunted, giving Clark a nudge as they both chuckled.
“No, this was his great-grandpa,” Larry countered.
All three of them laughed. Truth was, neither of the boys had been successful yet today. And they had been there since an hour or so after sunrise.
But suddenly there was a tug on Lana's line. Laying her sandwich down she took the pole in both hands, making sure of her catch, and with a steady pull lifting it from the water.
“Wow! What a beauty!” Larry said.
“Yeah,” Clark agreed, looking at Lana rather than her fish, “she sure is.”
Lana stuck her tongue out at him, but grinned.
Clark helped her unhook the fish and they laid it, flopping out its last throes, in the bucket they brought for their catches. Lana lost no time baiting her hook again and seeing if her luck would hold. Unlike some girls, she wasn't at all squeamish about handling worms and such, which was another one of the qualities the boys prized in her.
Just as her line went in Larry's pole bent under the pull of another fish. “Lana, you're our good luck charm,” he said as he brought it in.
“Aw, bet you say that to all the girls,” she said.
“Just the freckled redheads,” he said. Though both boys liked Lana, Larry knew that if anyone had a claim on her it was his best friend; she was Clark's girl and had been since first grade; maybe even before. The Lang farm bordered the Kent farm, and the two had been inseparable playmates from the time they met. Larry, on the other hand, was a town boy. His father had been first an officer then chief of police for over twenty years.
They stayed out the rest of the afternoon, munching sandwiches and washing them down with lemonade until they were gone, waiting for the sun to head well into the west. Sunset this time of year of course wasn't until well after supper time, and the three of them were due back home well before that. None of them had watches, but they sat facing the west and gauged the time by the angle of the sun as they had done so many times before. When it reached a certain height from the horizon they divvied up their catches, packed their gear and started back.
When they reached the main road they parted ways, Larry headed for town and Clark and Lana out to their respective farms. But Larry stopped a moment, staring off through a clearing. “Hey, look at this!” He pointed up the path to where the trees parted and an old, dark house sat on a hill, a black spectre of a house shrouded in the gloom of night even in mid-afternoon. At one side rose a solitary gable, and a single light glowed dimly behind its window.
Clark and Lana stopped and looked “The old Thorne Mansion?” Clark said.
“It always gives me the chills,” Lana said.
Clark put a protective arm around her. “There's a light!”
Larry nodded. “OK, so I'm not just imagining it.” All three stood silently staring a moment. “Who'd ever want to move in there?”
“I don't know,” Clark said. “The place has been deserted for I don't know how long.”
“Even my Pa told me once he doesn't remember anybody living there,” Lana said. “Except maybe the ghosts.”
“C'mon,” Larry said. “You don't believe in ghosts, do you?”
“Of course not,” Lana answered. She stared up at the house, hypnotized into its spell. “But that doesn't mean they're not real.”
The weirdly structured, somber house peering down at them through its high, lighted window mocked them with the secrets it held.
“Well, it's time we got home,” Larry said.
“Yeah,” Clark agreed. “I guess so.”
Lana's eyes were still trained on the house and its lone, dim light.
“Coming, Lana?” Clark asked, taking her arm.
“Yeah. I'm coming.”
They said good-bye to Larry and resumed their walk. Lana glanced again over her shoulder at the Thorne Mansion.
Lana jumped almost a foot into the air. Clark laughed at her fright.
“That wasn't funny, Clark Kent!” she said, poking him on the arm.
“I'm sorry,” he said, “but I couldn't resist.”
She took one last look back. “I wonder who's moved in there.”
“I wonder too. Guess we'll see them in town sooner or later.”
“Yeah, I guess you're right.”
The rest of the way their talk went to other things, such as their daily chores (forgiven for today, as their parents remembered their own summer fishing days) and planning to go to the movies the next week. Being a small town sometimes the big movies didn't make it out there until months later.
“I hear Gone with the Wind is coming before the summer's out,” Lana said. “You want to see that, don't you?”
“I read the book,” Clark said.
“Natch,” Lana teased; but she had too. Clark had lent it to her when he was done.
“Sure, I'd like to see it with you. As long as you don't sit there and go ooh and ahh all the time over Clark Gable.”
“There's only one Clark I'll go ooh and ahh over,” Lana replied. “Except when he's being a jerk; like now, for instance.” She poked his arm again. “Tag!” And she started running.
Clark knew he could catch her in a second, but controlled his speed. He let her stay ahead a reasonable distance until they were almost at her gate. Then he put on a burst of speed and caught her, wrapping his arm around her waist.
She giggled. “OK, you caught me.”
He hugged her to him. “Am I still a jerk?”
“No. No, you're really not.”
It was not their first kiss, and it wouldn't be their last.
“So long, Lana.”
“'Bye, Clark. See you tomorrow?”
“Sure. I'll wait here by your gate after morning chores.”
“See you then.”
Lana started up the walk to their farm house and Clark continued on a ways until he reached the gate of his own fence. He knew Lana had a crush on Clark Gable; most girls did. Some of the kids in class had even asked him if he was named after the actor, but of course that wasn't possible.
The Kents had told him a few months ago about how they had found him in what seemed to be a burning rocket, a rocket that had crashed right next to the road as they were driving home. That had been in 1925, years before anyone had ever heard of Clark Gable. No, his first name came from Ma Kent's maiden name, he explained to people. And most older adults in town remembered Sara Clark before she married Eben Kent.
Though he could have made the half mile trek to the farm house in an instant, just as he did when playing Tag with Lana he took his time. That was why he enjoyed things like playing baseball with the other guys, or hiking and camping. It gave him a chance to learn to control his powers, to keep them in check during times when they might be useful, but when he had to keep them hidden. He even did it when no one but his parents were looking, just to keep in practice.
His morning chores like milking Betsy the Cow and picking eggs from the chicken nests were things that he could do in seconds, but he did them at what Pa and Ma had taught him was a “normal” pace. Not only because he had to keep his abilities secret, but one day he would be away from the farm and out making his way in the world. Clark wasn't sure how he felt about that; he didn't want to leave Ma and Pa behind. Most of the other farm boys stayed on and continued to work their parents' farms, and their children usually did the same thing. There were several farms in the area, and the Kent farm was one of them, that had been run by the same family for several generations.
But Sara and Eben Kent knew their son was special, that he was destined to some purpose beyond this farm; one day he would have to leave them to fulfill that purpose.
Clark hoped that time was yet far away.
* * *
“Saw some lights in the old Thorne Mansion this afternoon,” Clark said at supper.
“Hmph,” grunted Eben Kent. “That ol' house's been abandoned since... well, maybe as far back as my granddaddy's time.”
“We used to say it was haunted,” Sara added with a wink to her husband.
Eben chuckled. “Yeah. Spooky lookin' place, that's fer sure.”
“Larry and Lana saw them too,” Clark continued, “and we wondered who might have moved in.” He helped himself to another slice of roast. “We couldn't figure who would want to live there.”
“Prob'ly somebody who wants privacy,” Eben said, regarding his foster son with meaning in his eyes. “Ain't none o' our business.”
“Yeah, I guess you're right.” Clark went back to his meal.
* * *
“Whoever it is,” Jim Lang said to Lana over their own supper, “they've a right to live wherever they want.” He took another sip of coffee. “Far as I'm concerned, they can have the place.”
“Can't help but be curious about it though, Pa,” Lana said.
“You know what curiosity did to the cat. If it's somethin' or somebody we're supposed to know or meet, it'll happen on its own. Don't you go frettin' about it.”
“I won't.” But Lana had her fingers crossed under the table as she said it.
* * *
“I know who it is who moved in there,” Chief Parker said to Larry and Mrs. Parker about the same time. “They came to the courthouse to file the lease on the place.”
“Who are they, Pa?”
“There's two of them, maybe three. Said they were researchers doing some kind of history work on old houses. Might be an article or book in the story of that old house.”
“What is the story behind it?” Larry asked.
“Oh, there's stories about it all right. Nobody's lived there for over fifty years; maybe more.”
“And this isn't the time for legends and ghost stories,” Mrs. Parker said. “You two eat your supper before it gets cold.”
Larry made up his mind to learn more about the house, and he was sure Clark and Lana were interested too. He tried to shove his impatience aside until tomorrow. Then if the three of them went to his father's office in the courthouse maybe he'd find the time to tell them.
* * *
Clark was waiting for Lana when she came running down the path to the main road. The “main road,” which became Main Street once you were in Smallville proper, really wasn't much of a road even once you followed it into town. It was an unpaved country road, wider once you got to town, but still unpaved. A water truck went through twice a day to keep down the dust, but not in the outlying woods and farmland. It had been that way since horse and buggy days; which really weren't all that long ago. There were still plenty who relied on horse-drawn carts and wagons to tote things around in, and most of the farmers brought in their goods for sale that way, just as their fathers and grandfathers had done decades before.
“I got a call from Larry,” Clark said as they started walking. “He wants to meet us at the courthouse.”
“Did he say what for?”
“No, but I guess Chief Parker wants to talk to us.”
“Oh. About the Thorne Mansion, I'll bet.”
Clark nodded. “That's my bet too.”
They continued to walk in silence for a bit. “Well, at least maybe the Chief knows who moved in there and will tell us that much,” Lana said.
“Maybe so. And he'll probably also tell us to stay away from there.”
“We've never stayed away from there before,” Lana said. And she was right.
Going back decades, perhaps even a couple of generations, exploring the Thorne Mansion had been a sort of Rite of Passage for Smallville boys and girls both. It was a test of courage, going up and knocking on the door and going inside, and the longer you dared stay the braver you were assumed to be. Such was the philosophy of youth.
“Who do you think moved in? Lana asked.
“I don't know. Guess we'll find out though.”
* * *
But Chief Parker had no intention of telling them. He was tall and had been slender before age settled some of his weight at his middle. But he was by no means fat, and even at 50 could outdo some of his younger officers in the annual physical fitness exams required by the county.
“Yes, I know who moved in there,” he told them, “the records are right here in the court house and I've seen them. But you'll find out about 'em same way everybody else in town will, when they're seen hereabouts.”
“We just thought it was odd seeing that light,” Larry said. “The place has been vacant for so long, we couldn't help but be curious.”
“Like a told Lana, you three know what they say curiosity did to a certain cat.”
“You don't think these people are dangerous, do you Chief Parker?” Clark asked.
“No, of course not. But they've got every right to their privacy, and I wouldn't be surprised if they've got a NO TRESPASSING sign up; or they'll have one right soon.”
“They can't shoot us or nothing if we go up, like on a friendly visit,” Lana said. “I could bake them some cookies or a cake as a present and...”
“No! Don't you go being nosy and bothering these newcomers, you hear?”
The three promised; though Lana again crossed her fingers as she did it.
* * *
“When will the equipment arrive?”
“Next week. But our first --- shipment --- will be here before that.”
“We're to expect them tomorrow night. We finished that tunnel just in time.”
“Didn't take much; we were closer to that cave by the lake than we thought.”
“Just hope no kids play in that cave.”
“If they do, then someone's gonna find their pride and joy's become a drowning victim.”
* * *
Hobo Joe liked the lake at night. A sliver of moon lent a low glimmer to the water. His real name wasn't Joe, but he was a hobo; and since it rhymed, that's how he'd introduce himself and that's what he'd gone by for so long he'd forgotten his real name himself.
He always knew where he could get a handout, and Chuck at the diner often made him sandwiches out of the day's leftovers. Chuck's Wagon was an abandoned railroad snack car that Chuck's dad, Chuck Sr., had converted into a diner. Young Chuck was just graduated from high school when word came that Chuck Sr. had been killed in the final days of the Great War, in 1918. Chuck Jr. had worked at the Wagon with his father in the summer and after school for the last few years before, and knew his way around the tiny kitchen in the car. It had become quite the hangout for teens in Smallville and Chuck Jr. made a good business of it.
Hobo Joe also knew where to find something to wash the sandwiches down with, and he sat on the shore of the lake with a bag of sandwiches beside him and a second brown bag wrapped around a bottle of home brew from a friend in the hills outside of town.
He had finished his first sandwich and took a long pull from the bottle when he noticed movement on the lake. It was rare that anyone sailed or fished at night, and this boat sat low in the water and had virtually no light, except what seemed the narrow beam of a flashlight. Joe made out three figures in the boat, though only head and shoulders appeared over the gunwale. Soundless, but for the light splash of paddles moving them along. They were soon out of sight, the darkness covering them. But Joe was sure he had seen them; though Chief Parker sometimes needed to lock him up to sleep it off overnight, it took quite a bit before he saw hallucinations. And Joe had enough sense about him that he knew it wasn't the liquor.
Wonder what they were doing on the lake at night? Joe asked himself, and found no answer. Oh well, folks can do what they want. It's still a free country. He was still hungry and there was another sandwich in the bag, so he started munching on it.
It was a warm night, and the stars were coming out. Joe had a blanket roll with him, as he always did, and sleeping under the stars was a joy to him, especially on these warm summer nights. He searched, but no more phantom boats floated by. Joe smiled and shook his head. It was real, though, he reminded himself. It sure was real.
He finished his dinner and sat up looking at the stars, picking out the constellations as sleep crept up on him. Finally Joe rolled himself up in his blanket and slowly drifted to sleep.
* * *
Clark closed the book and put it on his bedside table. It was The Disappearing Floor, the latest Hardy Boys mystery. He and Larry took turns buying them then after reading them gave the book to the other. Clark figured he'd finish this one tomorrow night and hand it over to Larry the following morning. They were going through the Tarzan novels and Zane Grey's westerns the same way, and both boys enjoyed reading them. Clark's tastes, however, sometimes ran more to the classics which Larry didn't care as much for, with the exception of the Sherlock Holmes stories they borrowed from the Smallville library.
Tomorrow he and Pa were to go into town to the general store, something both of them always looked forward to doing. They had eggs and the first crop of summer vegetables to trade for other goods needed at home. Maybe he'd run into Larry while they were there, and Pa would let them get lunch at Chuck's. Clark settled in comfortably and soon was asleep.
* * *
It was another summer day, but not as bright and sunny as it had been earlier in the week. Heavy clouds spread a dark gray layer over the sky, daring the sun to burn through, laden with moisture that dampened the air, but refusing to release it.
Eben Kent drove his old truck into town, with Clark beside him riding shotgun. Sara had given him a shopping list and Eben was dutifully headed for the General Store to fill it. Clark was quiet as they rode along.
“Penny for your thoughts, son.”
“Hmm? Oh, just thinking again about the Thorne place.”
“Now Clark, I told you the other night just to let that be. If we're supposed to know anything about the goin's on there, we will in God's good time.”
“I know, Pa. Can't help being curious, you know?”
Pa Kent grinned. “Sure, I know what you mean. Like I said, the place was deserted even when I was a kid. We used to dare each other to go up and knock on the door, or even go in. But that's when we knew there was no one there. Now folks are livin' in it, an' it ain't no business of ours as to who they are or what they're doin'.”
“Unless it's something illegal.”
“And then it's Chief Parker's job, it still ain't yours. And who says they're doin' anything illegal? Son, you've been readin' too many of them Hardy Boys books.” But he had to grin. “'Course, in my day it was dime novels of Nick Carter an' the Old Sleuth, not to mention of course the Sherlock Holmes stories you been reading for yourself.” Eben Kent was quiet for a time. “Someday, Clark, it will be your turn. You'll use them powers of yours to help folks, and go after crooks an' murderers an' the like. But until that time comes, you gotta be careful.”
“I know, Pa.” But sometimes it was awful hard to wait, Clark thought.
* * *
Clark browsed through the pulps and comics while Pa gave his order to Seth Gray, the owner of the store. The little bell over the door jingled and Clark glanced over in curiosity. The man who entered was someone he had never seen before, but his looks were striking. He was big and broad, and his features looked like they had been stepped on. He rudely brushed against Eben, growling “Look out, gran' pa.,” before sauntering through the store. Clark had to resist going to his father's defense.
The man seemed to be taking a sort of inventory of the store, as though memorizing the layout. Clark ventured a question.
“Anything I can help you find, mister?”
“Outta the way, sonny,” the man replied, shoving Clark aside. Clark allowed himself to fall against a counter and the man laughed. Clark didn't like his laugh.
Neither did Eben or Seth, who excused himself from the counter and went over to the stranger. “I'm the owner. Anything you're looking for?”
“Just lookin' around. It's a free country, ain't it?”
“Yes, it still is last I looked.”
“Then leave me alone.” The man ignored him and went on looking.
Seth returned to the front counter. “Rough customer, that one,” he whispered to Eben.
Eben just nodded. Seth filled the rest of the order. “C'mon, Clark.”
“OK, Pa.” Clark took one last glance at the tough stranger, this time with X-Ray Vision. He was carrying a gun in his waistband. No law against that as it was, but he still wondered what the man was up to. He helped carry the purchases to the truck and load them.
“Hey, Clark!” It was Larry Parker. He came over and clapped Clark on the back then helped settle the load in the truck.
“I got one more stop to make,” Pa said. “If you and Larry wanna go do somethin' for about a half hour or so, go ahead. Meet me back here.”
“OK Pa. Thanks.”
“Good seeing you, Larry,” Pa said as he went into another shop.
“I'm hungry,” Larry said. “How about you?”
“Thought you'd never ask. Chuck;s Wagon?”
Larry chuckled. “Where else?”
They tossed a coin to see whose turn it was to treat and walked over to the converted railway car. Hot dogs and milkshakes were ordered and they sat at one of the few small tables.
“Larry, Pa and me were in Seth Gray's store just now. A stranger came in: a big guy, who looked like a really mean customer.”
“A stranger? You mean, you think he might be one of the ones who rented the Thorne Mansion?”
“Maybe. I've sure never seen him before.”
A familiar figure entered and saw them. “Hi, boys!”
It was Hobo Joe, who came over to their table and pulled up a chair, straddling it backwards. “How're you boys enjoyin' your summer vacation?”
“It's always over too soon.”
Hobo Joe laughed. “Yeah, I remember. Summers was always too short in my day too. Then we had to go back to school again.” Hobo Joe hadn't finished fifth grade, but he had a knack for fixing things and often found odd jobs around town. “How's the fishin' been?”
Larry again told about the one that got away.
“Yeah, I almost had him oncet meself,” Hobo Joe said. “Guess all us guys've tried to get that one.” He turned serious. “Strange things on that lake at night though.”
“Strange?” Clark asked. “In what way?”
“Well, last night for instance.” Hobo Joe told about the boat he had seen glide into the cove where the cave was. “Wonder what they was up to?”
“Maybe I ought to tell my Pa,” Larry said.
“You do that, Larry,” Hobo Joe said as he got up and put the chair back in place. “You do that. Might be somethin' awful mysterious goin' on.” Hobo Joe went up to the counter and plunked down a quarter. “I'll take one o' them wieners the boys is munchin' on. An' don't spare the onions!”
Clark and Larry grinned. Not that he could do much about it, but Hobo Joe had bad enough breath without the extra onions!
They finished their hot dogs and milkshakes and went outside. Clark saw the stranger across the street. “That's the man there,” he whispered to Larry.
The stranger was glancing back and forth then saw the diner and headed toward it. Just as he approached it Hobo Joe came out with his hot dog and a bottle of soda. The stranger shoved past him and Hobo Joe barely managed to hang on to his extra onions. He studied the stranger as he went inside.
Clark and Larry exchanged glances. “You OK, Joe?” Clark asked, helping him wipe off spilled mustard and onions from his already soiled and shabby clothes..
“Yeah. Yeah, I'm all right. Seems I seen that fella before though. Not his face mebbe, but there's somethin' about his looks.” Joe continued to look inside as though he too had X-Ray Vision then shook his head. “Just my imagination I guess. Mebbe even that boat last night was my imagination.” He smiled sheepishly. “I admit I had a bit o' moonshine last night.”
The boys chuckled. “Don't worry,” Larry said, “I won't tell my Pa.”
Hobo Joe laughed. “Thanks. I appreciate it. Chuck Jr. makes hot dogs almost as good as his pa done.” He walked off finishing his hot dog on the way and washing it down with his soda.
“Wonder what Joe saw?” Clark said.
“Besides the bottom of a bottle?” Larry joked.
“C'mon, Larry. Everybody likes Hobo Joe.”
“Yeah, he's OK in my book. My Pa doesn't bother him about his drinking, unless he shows up in town with a snoot-full an' raisin' a ruckus, and that's rare.”
“And he's quite the handyman too. He's repaired fences and roofs, even done some plumbing for us out at the farm,” Clark added. “Too bad he likes to drink now and then.”
Larry asked seriously, “What do you think he really saw last night?”
“I don't know. We've played in that cave too. Wonder if they hid something in there?”
“Wanna go check it out?”
“There you are!” Pa Kent called from down the street. “Thought we were supposed t' meet at the truck?” He came over to them.
“Sorry, Pa,” Clark said. “After we had our hot dogs we were talking to Hobo Joe.”
Eben Kent grinned. He had gone to school with the fellow now known as Hobo Joe. Joe had to leave school to work for his Ma, who had been widowed. “What sort of tall tales did he tell you this time?”
“He was telling... “ Larry started.
“Just about some dream he had last night while sitting by the lake,” Clark finished. “At least, that's all it probably was.” He shot Larry a glance.
“Yeah,” said Larry, picking up the cue. “You know Joe and his stories.”
“Sure do. He told a passel of 'em back when we were kids.” Pa got out his old worn pocket watch. “Well Clark, you're Ma's probably wonderin' what's keepin' us. We better get back.”
“OK, Pa. Larry, maybe I'll see you tomorrow.”
Larry was visibly disappointed. “OK Clark. Maybe we can go caving some other time.”
“Sure thing. So long.”
As they walked back to the truck Pa asked, “You two were gonna go exploring them caves by the lake?”
“We haven't been there for a long time, so we were talking about it.”
“I remember doin' the same thing when I was a young 'un. But I thought you an' Larry had grown outta doin' dangerous stuff like that.”
“It's not that dangerous, Pa.”
“Mebbe not for you, but Larry could get hurt. Them caves is treacherous; you never know when the might fall in on ya.”
“If anything happens I could get Larry out.”
“Not without usin' your powers, an' you promised to keep 'em secret.”
Clark studied the pavement. “Yes, Pa.”
“So you two stay outta there. You hear me?”
* * *
Clark lay awake on his bed. He had promised that he and Larry wouldn't go into the caves; but did that mean he couldn't go in on his own?
Ma and Pa were also in bed, and both were sound sleepers. If he was quiet he could go out and they wouldn't be the wiser. He rose from bed and stepped out of the window, landing lightly on the ground below. He sprinted away from the house to the main road in a second and stopped.
He had recently found that with a running start he could leap great distances. At first it was an eighth of a mile; then a half; and now he had learned to harness that power in such a way as to virtually fly. That way he would reach the caves in mere moments.
There was the chance that he might be seen; but it was minimal. On the other hand, if he ran there, the possibility of being seen was greater. Most everyone in Smallville and the farmland surrounding it went to bed early, but there was the occasional car or truck along the main road even this late.
Clark made up his mind: he would fly!
It wasn't far; he and Lana had walked it many times. But it was the furthest he had ever flown. So far he had confined his flights to far corners of the Kent farm, where he was less likely to be seen. This would be a test of his powers, and maybe if Pa or Ma found out he could tell them that's all it was.
He gathered himself, took the running start to absorb momentum, and launched himself into the air.
Clark soared over the tilled fields below, sailing over the Lane farmhouse and barns, on to the woods beyond, then while over the lake his flight began to arc its way downward. But he had found that by twisting his body, like that of a skier or diver, he could control his direction.
His feet struck the earth just at the shore, sending gravel and stones down into the water. Clark glanced around: there was no one there. So far so good.
Two caves yawned on the mountainside bordering the lake. He and Larry and Lana too for that matter had explored them numerous times. Neither went that far back, though there were side tunnels in both. Clark started into the left one. One of the powers he had discovered in himself was the ability to see in the dark nearly as well as in broad daylight. When spelunking with Larry and Lana he used a flashlight as they did, but he didn't need one.
He entered the cave and walked calmly and fearlessly as far as he could go, passing for now the side tunnels. The cold and damp didn't bother him, even in his thin underwear. He reached a dead end but suspected there might be something on the other side. He put his ear to the rock and listened. Nothing. Then he turned his X-Ray Vision on the rock and found only more rock beyond it.
All right, he thought, strike one. He walked into one of the side tunnels, listening and training his X-Ray Vision on the walls. Still nothing but solid rock. There was one other side tunnel, and that also proved to be only a fruitless effort.
He came to the exit of the cavern and made sure the coast was still clear. The coast is clear. He thought about the origin of that phrase, probably going back centuries to smugglers working off of any coast in the world. Is that what they're up to? Are they smugglers? If so, what were they smuggling? What kind of goods could they transport on the lake? And once they deposited them in the cave, where did they take them from there? Surely they didn't think to sell their contraband here in Smallville!
Clark went into the second cave. Like the first there were several side tunnels; more than in the first cave. But as in his first expedition he went all the way to the back, which he knew stretched deep into the mountain. Funny he had never thought of it before, but this tunnel led more or less toward the old Thorne Mansion. Was there a connection?
He reached the end of the main tunnel earlier than usual. His sense of direction and distance were also far more acute, and he could tell this wall, though of dirt and stone like the rest, was man made. Clark placed his ear against it and concentrated. Faint sounds came to him, voices in conversation. He tried but couldn't make out the words. He hoped as he grew older these abilities of his would improve. But there was definitely something going on the other side of this barrier; maybe not just behind it, but beyond it was a tunnel leading... where? And wherever it was men were meeting and plotting.
Clark used his X-Ray Vision again, combining it with what he called his Telescopic Vision, to peer not only through the rock but as far beyond it as possible. And he did indeed see men seated around a table, and several others standing or straddling chairs at one side or another. He wished again his Super Hearing was more advanced so he could hear what was being said.
Then one of the faces that had been turned away from him became visible as the man put out his cigarette in an ash tray to his left. It was the ugly man he had seen in the store! So whatever was going on, he was part of it.
Clark was tempted to tear down the rock wall and break up this gathering of crooks, for he was sure that's what they were. But how could he? Breaking through the barrier was nothing; but being seen doing it, and confronting the criminals at their meeting: that was another. He had already gone into the cave against Pa's wishes; if he were to try to capture them now, even though he knew he could, it would violate a more sincere promise he had made before: to hide his powers until the right time had come.
And somehow Clark knew that time was not yet.
Reluctantly he went along the passage and out of the cave. With another running start he flew over the lake and back home. A simple jump carried back to his window, he crept inside, and into hi bed. He heard the regular breathing of his Ma and the soft snores of Pa and smiled. They had slept through his entire adventure.
But he was not to sleep any more that night.
* * *
All was dark along the streets of Smallville as the car pulled to the curb. The man who got out looked like someone had smashed his face in with a frying pan. He wore gloves and dark clothing. Using a lock-pick he broke into the general store. A flashlight played about the shelves and displays. He had already cased the joint: nothing here worth stealing.
Then he went to the cash register. The lock on it wasn't much more difficult than the one on the door. The man sneered; What else do you expect in a hick town like this? There wasn't a lot of cash in the drawers, but this wasn't his main target.
Another series of deft twists of his lock-pick and he had opened the back door to the office. The beam of the flashlight did a slow dance until it fell upon the safe.
He took off the glove from his right hand, flexed his fingers to limber them up, and started to turn the dial, listening closely. One tumbler --- the second --- and the third. He tried the lever and the safe opened. This was where all the cash was kept.
There was a sound from upstairs. Of course, the shopkeeper lived in rooms above his store. That's how it was in all these rinky-dink small towns. He waited; there was a creak, a soft moan. Then silence. He counted to twenty, which was his limit. Above that it all got too confusing. Then he counted to twenty again. No more noise.
He drew a canvas sack from inside his coat and began filling it with the cash in the safe. There was quite a lot here considering this place was so off the beaten track. This'll pay my fee, he thought, an' gimme somethin' extra too. Once he had emptied the safe he started toward the door. No need to wipe my fingerprints; they probably don't even know what they are way out here in the boonies! With a chuckle he made his way through the store.
Then as he tried putting his flashlight away it slipped from his hand and fell to the floor. The dim glow of the streetlamp outside let him find it, but the bulb had shattered and it was useless. He threw it away in frustration and it struck against a display of canned goods. There was a crash, he had to stumble over the rolling cylinders of tin, and hit the door with his shoulder on the way out. He heard a voice and footsteps behind him, but was quickly in his car and driving away.
Seth was awakened by the crash and came down the steps, shotgun in his hand. He saw the man get in the car and speed off, but failed to get a shot. There had been an instant when the streetlamp above had illuminated his face, and Seth recognized it. He went to the phone, lifted the receiver and gave it a few cranks. “Hello, Sarah? Ring Chief Parker.”
* * *
Chief Parker didn't like being called out of bed a little after midnight, but he also knew that crime didn't carry a watch; something he had told aspiring young lawman Larry several times. Larry had gotten up too, and insisted on going along. The Chief realized his son would probably get dressed and ride his bike to the store anyway, so he said: “All right. Be ready in five minutes, or I'll leave without you.”
He made it in time.
Seth had taken time to put on a pot of coffee and the hot black stuff was plenty strong. It gave Parker the pick-me-up he needed. Seth showed them the spilled cans, which he had left lying, and the open safe. Parker looked over.
“Did you see who did this?” he asked Seth.
“Just a glimpse as he got in his car. Chief, he was in the store earlier today.”
“Probably casing the place,” Parker mused. “Can you give me a description?”
“Sure.” Seth answered. “He looked like his face was squashed in.”
Larry gasped at the description but held his piece.
Parker wasn't as backward as the crook had thought: he got his fingerprint kit from his car's glove box and even let Larry do the dusting, cautioning him to do it carefully and not to slap it on like he was whitewashing the side of a house.
“OK, Pa.” Larry was careful and his father took tape to lift the prints and placed them on cards. He didn't have a lab of his own, but there was a nearby city with a police department that had cooperated with him on previous cases. They could do the hard part. One of his officers, as sleep-eyed as he was, joined them just as he had lifted the last print.
“Here Jerry,” he said. “take these over to the city and have them work on them. See if they match anybody they know.”
Jerry yawned. “OK, Chief.” He saw the half-filled mug. “Any chance I can have some of that?”
“Sure.” Seth poured him some in a thick cardboard cup with a lid. “Watch it while you're driving.”
“That goes double for me,” Chief Parker added. “Drink what you can of it before you start off, and keep it away from those fingerprint samples, you hear?”
“I will, Chief.” He took a long pull from the cup and headed to his car.
“Boy, is Clark gonna be excited when he hears about this!” Larry said.
“Just don't you two amateur Sherlocks try to solve the case for me!” Parker said.
“We won't,” Larry answered as they headed back to their car. “But you can't blame a guy for bein' curious, can ya?”
Chief Parker smiled. “No, guess I was the same at your age.”
* * *
Despite his midnight adventure Larry was first one up the next morning. He went to the kitchen phone and called Clark.
“Clark? It's Larry. Have I got something to tell you! Meet me at the lake? Sure, you can bring Lana. All right, nine o'clock. See ya then.”
* * *
Boys who complained about getting up early for school were more than willing to rise with the sun for an adventure. The same was true of Lana, and she and Clark were at the lake even before Larry.
“So what's the big news?” Clark asked.
“Seth Gray was robbed last night.”
“Really?” Lana exclaimed. “Do they know who did it?”
“Yeah. And we know him too, Clark.”
“You mean the guy we saw yesterday?”
“What guy?” Lana asked. When neither answered at first she crossed her arms and started tapping her foot. “Will somebody tell me what's going on around here?”
Clark told her of the man who had shown such an interest in the store yesterday but hadn't bought anything, and of how he had nearly knocked down Hobo Joe.
“That's not all,” Clark added, telling of what Hobo Joe had seen on the lake two nights before.
“Wow. Sure sounds like a mystery, all right,” Lana said. “So what say we solve it?”
“Now hold on,” Clark said, “it might be dangerous.”
“So? I can do anything you can do, Clark Kent.”
Clark had to suppress an enormously strong urge to laugh in her face. There were things he could do that nobody else could do: male or female. At least as far as he knew. “I just don't want to see anything happen to you, Lana.”
“That's sweet. But I can take care of myself.”
“Not against burglars and who knows what else,” Clark insisted. He didn't know it but this was to be repeated many times years later with a certain brunette who by some strange coincidence also had the initials LL.
“All right. Go ahead. Play Cops and Robbers. Just don't come to me when you come back all bruised and battered up after the burglars beat up on you.” She turned on her heel and started away.
“Let her go,” Larry said when Clark started to follow. “I got something else to tell you too.”
“Pa's going to the old Thorne Mansion to take a look around. He checked at Miss Sadie's boarding house and the hotel and the guy's not at either one of them.”
“So he thinks he might be one of the ones at the Thorne Mansion?” Clark already knew he was, but didn't dare tell Larry; then he'd have to tell how he knew.
Larry nodded. “He should be getting there soon. Wanna take a hike up there?”
They knew a shortcut, just as they knew shortcuts to a number of places around the outside of town, and came to the edge of the wooded area that surrounded the Thorne estate. Chief Parker was standing on the porch, speaking to an older man whose chaplet of gray hair gave him a distinguished look.
“Wish we could hear what they're saying,” Larry said.
Clark nodded. He heard every word.
“So you think the man who robbed the store lives here?” the distinguished looking man said.
“I've checked and he doesn't seem to be staying anywhere else,” Parker insisted. “I'd like to take a look around if I may.”
“You accuse me of lying?”
“No sir.” Years of experience had allowed Parker to develop extreme patience. “It's just a routine search, as part of my investigation.”
“Have you searched anywhere else?”
“Besides inquiring at the hotel and the boarding house, no.”
“Then what evidence do you have that your ---suspect? --- is here?”
“None for certain.”
“And I'm sure here even in what they call the 'sticks' you need a warrant for a search?”
“Yes sir, if the owner of a house objects otherwise.”
“Then I object. Find yourself a judge and return with a warrant. Then I'll let you search to your heart's content. Good day, Chief Parker.” The man went inside and shut the door.
Chief Parker glared at the door, and perhaps even muttered a few things under his breath he wouldn't want Larry to hear him say, then returned to his car.
Clark had heard the muttering but kept it to himself. He also gave it a once-over with X-Ray Vision and saw something interesting about the basement. This too he kept secret. “C'mon, let's get back.” As they made their way through the woods they spotted an unmistakable ponytail. “OK, Lana, you can come out now.”
Lana had chosen a vantage point a few yards to one side. “Aw, how did you guys find me?”
“Old Eagle Eye Clark spotted you,” Larry said. “Sometimes I think he's got X-Ray machines for eyes!”
“Could be,” Clark blurted, regretting it immediately.
“Oh?” Lana seemed suddenly uncomfortable.
“What're you doing here?” Clark asked to change the subject.
“Same as you: snooping.” Lana brushed some grass from her jeans. “See anything exciting?”
“Just my Pa trying to get in and search the place,” Larry said. “Looks like one of the men who lives here wouldn't let him in. Least that's my guess.”
“I saw him too,” Lana said. “I couldn't hear anything either.” Then she turned to Clark. “Say Clark, along with the X-Ray eyeballs do you have microphone ears?”
“I'm sorry, Lana; what did you say?”
She aimed a kick at his shins but he stepped out of the way. It would surely have hurt her more than it did him if she had connected.
They headed back to the main road. A delivery truck was approaching and pulled over. “Hey kids, is this the way to the Thorne Mansion?”
“Yes sir,” Larry answered. “Right up this drive.”
“Thanks.” There was a crunch of gears and he followed the unpaved path up.
“Wonder what he's got in there?” Lana said.
Clark inspected it with his X-Ray Vision. It looked like medical equipment, complete with an operating table. “What are they doing with medical equipment?” Clark wondered aloud.
“How do you know it's medical equipment?” Lana asked.
Clark started; I've really got to be more careful. “I got a glimpse inside,” he said.
“What, through those little windows in the back doors?” Lana was persistent.
Clark nodded. “At least, that's what it looked like to me.”
“C'mon, let's get a closer look,” Larry said. “Medical stuff, huh? We'll see.” He led the way through the woods around to the back of the house where the truck had just pulled up. A rear entrance to the basement was open, and the truck driver and several rough looking men from the house were unloading it and hauling the equipment inside.
“Right again, Eagle Eye,” Larry whispered. “Tell me how you do that sometime.”
“I've just got good eyes, that's all.” Except for the fact that he knew he was not of this world, Clark knew nothing more of the origins of his powers. He hoped one day to learn more.
“We'd better tell my Pa,” Larry said, gesturing them further into the woods and away from the Mansion.
“No you'd better not,” Clark said. “Remember we promised not to snoop around here.”
“Maybe you two did, but I didn't,” Lana said. She started back toward the house and Clark caught her gently but firmly by the arm.
“No, Lana. Let's just get out of here and decide what to do next.”
“Clark, did you recognize Fry-Pan Face unloading that truck?” Larry asked when they were clear of the woods.
“Fry-Pan Face?” Lana asked.
“The one who looks like somebody smashed his face in,” Clark said.
“Oh! Yeah. He gave me the creeps.”
“My Pa should at least know about him,” Larry said. “That's why he wanted to search the place, to find Fry-Pan Face.”
“I'm not sure, Larry,” Clark said. “Besides, maybe he'll commit another robbery and get caught.”
“OK. But if he shows himself, I'm telling Pa.”
* * *
Another crime was committed a week later, but the culprit was not seen. And this time no fingerprints were left behind. Chief Parker still suspected that one of the dwellers in the Thorne Mansion had committed this robbery too, but there were no leads linking the crime to the Mansion.
Shortly after that Clark was taking Lana shopping. It was mainly window shopping, as her allowance wasn't that much. Depression wages for those who could actually find work wasn't that much to begin with. Both of their fathers made what living they could out of the produce from their farms, and it left little for their offspring to have as spending money. But Clark had offered to buy Lana anything she wanted, as long as he could afford it. And that's an offer no red-blooded American girl could refuse.
They walked along looking into the windows of the various shops. There was a dressmaker's, and though Lana favored overalls and jeans she wore dresses or skirts to school and church. But any skirts they saw were more than Clark's allowance could afford.
A narrow alley separated two of the shops and as they crossed it someone too intent upon lighting a cigarette to pay attention abruptly stepped in their path, colliding with Lana and dropping the lit match which landed on her hand. Lana squealed in pain and the man, ignoring her, shouldered past them.
“Hey, wait a minute, mister!” Clark called.
The man kept on walking. Clark and Lana both recognized him as one of the men they had seen unloading the truck at the Thorne Mansion.
Clark caught him in a second and clamped a hand on his shoulder. “Wait, mister. You owe my friend an apology.”
The man tried to jerk loose but the hand on his shoulder had a grip of steel. “Let me go, kid, or I'll hurt ya.” He held a beefy fist under Clark's chin.
Clark was ready to do battle, knowing the man couldn't hurt him. He tightened his grip and he saw the man wince under the increased pressure.
“Not until you apologize to Lana.” Clark's anger was aroused. “Your match burned her and you shoved her aside like a sack of potatoes.”
Somehow this kid was dragging him back by the shoulder. The man didn't understand it. “OK, OK.” He hadn't apologized for anything since he was six, but it seemed the best way out of it for now. What're they feeding these farmboys anyhow, he wondered. The redhead was cute, he gave her that. She was nursing a red mark on the back of her hand where his match had fallen. He glanced at his captor; neither of these kids looked long out of diapers yet But this boy --- where did he get such a grip? “I'm sorry, kid. Should've watched where I was goin'.” They're the ones who should look out, he thought, but kept it to himself.
“I accept your apology,” Lana said. “You ought to be more careful coming out of alleys.”
“And you kids...” The rest of the sentence died in his throat as his shoulder was pressed even harder. Man, this kid's got a grip! “OK, I apologized. Will ya let me go now, sonny?”
Clark released him. “If Lana's willing to forgive you, I am.”
Nursing his bruised shoulder the man glared at the two of them before going on his way.
“Wow, Clark! You really stood up to him! I've never seen you do anything so brave before.” She gave him a “thank you” peck on the cheek.
Clark struggled to control his anger and feigned a sudden tremble of fear. “I --- I don't know what got into me, Lana.” He was visibly quivering now. “He --- he could have really hurt me.”
“But he didn't. In fact, he seemed afraid of you. And all you did was grab him by the shoulder!”
“Guess I don't know my own strength sometimes.” He decided a change of subject was in order. “I still haven't bought you anything. C'mon, let's look in some more stores.”
“Well, I've never heard of a guy who likes to shop! Clark Kent, you're a keeper, you know that?”
Clark grinned. “So are you, Lana.”
They resumed their walk down Main Street hand in hand.
Clark was glad he could come to Lana's rescue. But he hoped she didn't think too hard about it. At the same time he wondered what the man he had chased away might say to the others at Thorne Mansion.
* * *
That night a third robbery occurred: the filling station was robbed. Still no clues.
Larry was visiting his Dad when Clark and Lana came. Sam Newberry, editor of the local paper, was there interviewing the Chief.
“This is the closest Smallville has come to a real crime wave in all its history, wouldn't you say Chief?”
“We've had three robberies, none of which have been as yet solved. I wouldn't call it a crime wave.”
“But Smallville usually sees no more than a half dozen thefts in as many months, and most of those are shoplifters. Who do you think is behind these robberies, Chief?”
“We haven't been able to identify the thief or thieves yet.”
“Most of the folks around here say it's got to be somebody staying at the Thorne place. What do you say to that?”
“If it's true, we haven't been able to link anyone there to the robberies.”
Newberry finally left, much to Parker's relief.
“I'm glad that's over with.” The Chief sat down at his desk.
“Chief Parker, I've got a special delivery for you.” Artie, one of Clark and Larry's school mates, was working in the local post office for the summer. They chatted briefly before Artie went back to work.
The Chief opened the envelope. There was a copy of a police record and a photo inside. “Now I've got something!” Parker said, slapping the photograph. He got up and took his hat. “I'm going to Judge Green's.”
“What is it, Pa?” Larry asked..
“I just got an identification to match those fingerprints from the first robbery.”
“And you think the guy is at the Thorne Mansion?” Larry said.
“Son, I'm going to find out. This should be enough for a warrant.”
“Clark,” Larry said, “you think it's Fry-Pan Face?”
Chief Parker stopped half-way out the door and came back in. “Who?”
“It's a guy Clark saw the day of the robbery, who seemed to be casing Seth Gray's store.”
“Seth said the man looked like his face had been squashed,” Chief Parker mused. “And this photo sure looks like it too.” He showed them the photo.
“That's him,” Larry said. “We saw him at the Thorne Mansion too!” The word “Oops!” played in Larry's head.
“What? You saw him at the Thorne Mansion?” Chief Parker was livid.
“Yeah,” Larry admitted sheepishly. “A couple of weeks ago.”
“Why didn't you tell me then?”
thought you'd be mad for us snooping around the place.”
“Yeah, but did you have any proof then?” Larry asked.
Chief Parker's shoulders sagged along with his anger. “No. But this report clinches it. And if you've seen him around there, that's more than enough for me.” He put his hand on Larry's shoulder. “Thanks, son. Now maybe we can get to the bottom of this.”
“Can we go along when you make the arrest?”
“No! What I said still stands. I don't want either of you boys snooping around there anymore. Especially since we know now at least one dangerous person is in there.” His grip on Larry's shoulder tightened and he took Clark's in his other hand. “Promise me? Both of you.”
But he didn't ask Lana.
* * *
The Smallville Bus Depot was just outside of town and Lana's Uncle Matt, a scientist who sometimes worked for the Federal Government, was due to arrive for a short stay. Clark had come with her to meet him, and Larry had tagged along. A work crew was constructing an expansion of the waiting area, and frankly one corner of the depot was a mess. They arrived a good while before the bus was to arrive, and were enjoying ice cream cones from a vendor nearby.
As their ice creams started to melt under the hot summer sun they went inside the depot where it was cooler, standing where they could see the bus arrive. The depot was small; the town was but a minor stop for most routes. Still there were people either waiting to leave on a bus or to greet someone coming in. And the three teens enjoyed observing the various types of people who were there.
Clark stopped short and whispered to Larry, “See that guy over there?” He gave a slight nudge toward the man with his cone.
The man had a bandage over the middle of his face, covering his nose, which stood out almost as much as Jimmy Durante's. But the rest of his face somehow looked familiar. Clark examined the nose with his X-Ray Vision and saw that it wasn't fake; but there were scars beneath the bandage, indicating some surgery had been done on it and it was in the last stages of healing.
There was no doubt about it: this was Fry-Pan Face, and he'd had plastic surgery to enlarge his nose. Larry recognized him too. “I'm calling my Dad,” he said, heading for a pay phone.
Clark used his Telescopic Vision and read the ticket in the man's coat pocket. It was for the next bus, the one Lana's uncle was arriving in. He glanced at the clock: it was due in five minutes!
He had to do something; Chief Parker wouldn't arrive until the bus had already left. The bus line prided itself on keeping a tight schedule. Larry was coming back, giving an OK sign, so he had made his call.
He was concentrating on the problem and in spite of Super Hearing didn't hear Lana calling his name until she practically shouted it in his ear. “Sorry, Lana. What did you say?”
“Who is that guy you and Larry are talking about?”
Larry got back at that moment. “That's Fry-Pan Face,” he explained.
“Oh. Now I understand,” Lana replied facetiously. “No I don't. Who is Fry-Pan Face?”
They explained he was the one suspected of robbing Seth Gray's store.
Larry nodded. “Clark thinks he's had surgery on his nose to change his appearance.”
“You recognized him even with that big bandage on his face?” Lana said to Clark as though it was a challenge.
“I think it looks like him too,” Larry said. “I called my Dad. Hope he gets here in time.”
There was the sound of hydraulic brakes outside as the bus came to a stop.
“That must be Uncle Matt,” Lana said and went out to greet him.
Clark saw the suspect gather his bag and join the line forming for the bus. He had to do something to stop it from leaving!
He spied a couple of nails on the ground, discarded by the workmen. Non-chalantly he picked a few up and when nobody was looking he put them in his mouth. The taste of rust was unpleasant, and they were bent. But he ignored the flavor and straightened them in his mouth. Then he took aim and spit first one nail then the other right into the rear tires of the bus. Two direct hits, and as the tires deflated the rear of the bus sagged under its own weight.
An attendant was unloading luggage, and Clark went up to him. “Excuse me sir, but it looks like the bus has a flat.”
The attendant looked where Clark was pointing. “It sure does!” He went to tell the driver, who had stepped out to stretch his legs.
Prof. Matthew Lane had just stepped off the bus and saw Lana immediately. He carried a briefcase which he set down to greet her. They were exchanging a warm hug and Clark came over to join them.
“Uncle Matt,” Lana said, “these are my friends Larry Parker and Clark Kent.”
“Oh, so you're the young Clark Kent my niece has been writing to me about,” Uncle Matt said, shaking Clark's hand. “You've made quite an impression on her you know.”
Lana turned almost as red as her hair. “Oh, Uncle Matt...”
“And you're Larry. I hear your Dad is the police chief.”
“That's right, sir.” Larry shook hands with him.
“Please, you boys can call me Uncle Matt too if you'd like.”
Larry grinned. “OK --- Uncle Matt.”
Clark had noticed the driver had gone inside and was talking to someone at the customer service counter. In a moment the squawk of the loudspeaker being turned on sounded through the room.
“Your attention please. Your attention please. We have a problem with this bus, and it will not be leaving on time. We are sorry for the delay, and hope you will excuse us while our crew performs the necessary maintenance.”
Fry-Pan Face didn't look too happy, but then neither did any of the rest of the passengers. Fry-Pan Face was the most vocal, and used a few words almost never heard in public in Smallville. The rest of the passengers shied away from him, though he didn't seem to care. He went right up to the desk and started bawling out the woman behind it, not being too particular about the language he used.
Even small towns like Mayberry and Smallville have cars with sirens, and the siren was heard approaching. Fry-Pan Face heard the siren, emitted one more expletive, and started to run.
No one could explain how that oil drum that had been sitting to one side minding its own business for so long suddenly decided to tip over and start rolling right in the path of the fleeing man, sending him into an impromptu acrobatic act that landed him flat on his face. Some had noticed a sudden wind, though whether that accounted for it nobody knew. But there he was lying on the ground, his wits shaken from him, when Chief Parker and a couple of his officers came to arrest him.
“Whew, things are more exciting in Smallville than what I remember,” Uncle Matt said. “Who is that guy, anyway?”
“Dad suspects him of having robbed Seth Gray's general store,” Larry explained. “And we think something strange is going on at the old Thorne Mansion.”
“What about you, Lana? You with the boys on this?”
“Sure I am!”
Uncle Matt grinned. “That's my niece, the Red-Headed Daredevil!” He pulled her to him in a one-handed hug.
“Mr. Lang, here's your luggage,” a porter said, handing him his overnight bag and the briefcase he had set down before.
“Thanks. Well, I guess we can all start home now.”
The police car had pulled away and they started the walk to the main road that led to the Lang and Kent farms. Larry said good-bye and parted from them as they neared the jail, saying he wanted to talk to his Dad about the man they had arrested.
In those days no one thought much about a walk that might be as long as two or three miles, and it wasn't much further than that to the entrance to the Lang farm. Clark said his good-byes to Lana and Uncle Matt then continued to his own home.
He told Ma and Pa what had happened at the bus depot.
“Did anyone see you, son?” Eben asked.
“No, Pa. I'm sure of it. I heard one or two people wonder why they felt a breeze, but no one connected it with me.”
Eben thought it over a moment or two. “All right, son. You did right, not letting that crook get away.” But Clark didn't seem to be encouraged by this. “What is it, Clark?”
“I want to use these abilities of mine to help people, to fight crime. But how can I keep doing it and not let on that I'm --- I don't even know what I am. You said I came to Earth in some kind of rocket. Where did that rocket come from? Why was I sent here? Are the people who sent me somewhere out in space, maybe watching us --- watching me?”
“We don't have any of those answers, Clark; you know that,” Sara Kent said. “We can only guess that rocket came from some other planet; Mars maybe, or Jupiter.”
“Or maybe even some planet we never heard of,” Eben added. “You know them stories I read in them pulp magazines, about rockets and outer space an' all. I like readin' 'em, even though I don't understand a lot of it.” He leaned forward and placed a hand on Clark's shoulder. “But that don't mean I don't believe any of it might be true. And if I ever doubt it, all I gotta do is think of you.”
Clark shook his head. “Because I'm some kinda freak from outer space, like somebody in one of your magazines.”
“You're also our son, and that's what's most important. No matter where you came from, you're still our son. We've brought you up like you were our own, and tried to bring you up right with the values an' beliefs we have.”
“And you've done it well. I couldn't have asked for better parents.” He hugged them both. “But there's gotta be some way to help people without giving away my secret.”
“We'll think of a way, son,” Sara said. “In the meantime, just be careful.”
“All right. I will.”
* * *
“Did he tell you anything, Dad?” Larry asked after his father had questioned the prisoner.
“He didn't confess, if that's what you mean,” Chief Parker said. “All he did is ask for a lawyer.”
“Then he didn't say anything about the Thorne place?”
“No, but Judge Garth gave me a search warrant and I'm headed there now.” He reached for his hat and nodded to one of his men to come along.
“Can I come too?”
“Larry, I'm glad you're interested in police work. But you're too young to go on something like this. You just sit tight, call your friends Clark and Lana if you want to on my phone, and I'll tell you if I find anything when I get back.”
Larry watched as his father got in the black and white car and his officer drove away. Then he went to the phone and called Clark and Lana to tell them.
* * *
The door was answered by the same older gentleman as before. “You're here again, Chief Parker?”
“Yes, and this time I have a warrant.” He showed the man the blue-tinged papers with Judge Garth's signature. “May we come in?”
“Of course. Always ready to aid the defenders of law and justice.” He stepped aside and Parker and his man entered.
Parker directed the officer to check upstairs while he searched the main level and downstairs. The older man, who had introduced himself as Dr. Kohler, led the way until Parker insisted on doing his own searching.
“Suit yourself, Chief,” Kohler said.
Parker went from room to room, occasionally opening drawers where papers might be filed, taking names of those he met. There were only two or three; and though they seemed cooperative he made a note to check up on them.
A steep set of questionable stairs led to the basement, but Parker had hazarded worst before. It was an ordinary basement, filled with odds and ends; most of which probably belonged to the Thorne family, long since gone to extinction. He even checked some of the walls in case of hidden cabinets or rooms. Nothing suspicious about the place, so he climbed the steps back to where the old man waited.
“All right, I'm done,” he said. His officer came down a moment later and reported having found nothing of interest. “Thank you for your time and cooperation,” he said, “and I apologize for any inconvenience.”
“That's quite all right, Chief Parker,” the man said. “I hope you find the man or men who have committed these robberies. I'll feel much safer when they're either behind bars or far from here.”
Parker nodded. “Thanks again.” He signaled to his man and they returned to the car.
Once the police car was gone the old man went down the steps and to a spot beside the furnace. Hidden behind it was a small handle, which he twisted. A section of wall opened and he entered.
Inside were a series of cots: six or eight of them and almost as many men, a lounge area with comfortable chairs, and a radio. When Parker had pulled up the man had pressed a hidden button upstairs that communicated with a signal in his secret room. The radio had been turned off and the men had sat silently until he had entered.
“That fool of a local cop is gone,” he reported to the men sequestered there. “He had a warrant this time, and still didn't find a thing.”
Two of the men wore bandages over large parts of their faces, mainly over their nose and brow areas. One of them came forward. “I still don't like it. Suppose he comes back?”
“He won't. He found nothing, and he has to have new evidence to get another search warrant. And there isn't any.
“If you all lay low for a while, no more robberies until I say so, we won't get caught.”
“But what about me?” one of the other men said. His face was free of bandages and showed no signs of any surgery. “I gotta get the dough for you to work on me next. You said so.”
“You'll just have to be patient,” the old man said. “Give it time to die down; it won't take long. That's why we picked this little country town. Nobody is going to suspect what we're doing here.”
* * *
Clark and Lana arrived just before Chief Parker returned.
“Did you find anything, Pa?”
“No. But I'm still sure Roycroft there has some answers.”
“And I'm just as certain he doesn't,” a man said from a corner. His name was Amos Jackson, and he was relatively new in town. He was a small man with thinning hair who smiled constantly, a smile no one liked or trusted. “I've just visited with my client and am prepared to post bail.”
“Judge Garth hasn't set bail yet. I just arrested him about two hours ago. We haven't scheduled a hearing yet.”
Jackson pulled out an envelope from an inner pocket as though it were a rabbit from a hat. “Then I present you with a writ of habeas corpus, and demand my client's immediate release. I understand his arrest prevented him from taking a bus out of town, a bus for which he had already paid for the ticket.”
“That bus had been delayed anyway because of two flat tires.”
“How convenient for our brave heroes of law and order! Why, if not for the flat tires --- two you say? --- my client would be far away from here and out of your jurisdiction.”
“You make it sound like I damaged those tires myself so he couldn't catch his bus,” Chief Parker said.
No one saw Clark color slightly.
“Why, what a fascinating idea!” Jackson exclaimed. “No Chief Parker, I understand you didn't arrive for several minutes after the punctured tires were discovered. But perhaps one of your men... But we'll save that for another time. Now, if you will just free my client? I understand the tires have been replaced, the bus has been inspected, and will be leaving the depot ---” He consulted a gaudy gold pocket watch. “My my, he may have just enough time to make it.”
“He's not leaving,” Chief Parker said. “And neither are you, unfortunately. I was just about to interrogate your client, and I hope you will be in attendance?” He started toward a small corner room.
“Of course, of course. I never allow my clients to say anything that may incriminate them.” Jackson followed at his heels.
“Naturally. Why, they might even admit that they're guilty of something; and that would be bad business for you wouldn't it, Mr. Jackson?”
“A cop with a sense of humor,” Jackson said chuckling and patting the Chief on the back as though they were the best of friends. “I like that.”
Parker squirmed away from Jackson. “Go ahead in. I'll be with you in a minute.” He motioned to the three teens. “I'm going to leave this door ajar,” he whispered, “so you three can hear what goes on. You're all so eager about this I figure I can do that much.”
They thanked him and he went inside. He explained to Jackson and Roycroft that they would be overheard, and naturally Jackson objected.
“Why should you, Mr. Jackson?” Chief Parker said. “You don't think your client is actually guilty of anything, do you?”
“Absolutely not!” He added loudly enough to ensure he was heard outside the door, “And it's good for young people to learn something about how our system of justice works. Proceed, Chief Parker.”
Parker had a note pad and pencil, some papers, and other materials on the table before him. “Is your name Bart Roycroft?”
“No?” Parker slid a photo to him from the pile of papers. “Is this your photograph?”
Roycroft studied the photo with almost comic intensity. “No.”
Parker continued with calm tenacity.“This photo matches the description of a man who was seen in Seth Gray's store several weeks ago. He purchased nothing, though he seemed to be memorizing the layout of the place. The store was robbed that night.”
“Sorry to hear that,” Roycroft said.
“Weren't you the man who visited the store earlier that day?”
“Does somebody say I did?”
“Yes, we have several witnesses.”
“Then they're all liars.”
“Calm yourself, Mr. Roycroft,” Jackson said with a hand on his client's arm. “I'm sure you will forgive Mr. Roycroft's outburst.”
“Of course.” Parker took out two other sheets of paper. “This one,” he said tapping one of them, “shows the fingerprints we took of you when you were arrested earlier today.” He tapped the other, which was a police record sent by airmail from Chicago. “And here are the fingerprints of one Bart Roycroft.” He took a magnifying glass from an inside pocket. “You may examine them yourself. You also, Mr. Jackson. And you will see that they are identical.”
“I'll concede that the fingerprints are identical,” Jackson said. Roycroft started to protest but Jackson placated him. “Were any of those fingerprints found at the scene of the general store robbery?”
“No,” Parker admitted.
“Were they found at any of the other robberies?”
“No. There were fingerprints found, and we're waiting on information about them. But they don't match your client, if that's what you're asking.”
“So what do you have that ties him to this robbery?” Jackson asked. “I'll tell you: nothing. He browsed through this little country store and didn't buy anything. As far as I know, that's not a crime. That night the store was robbed, and because my client was seen there during the day, and he's a stranger in town, he must be the robber. Typical small-town bumpkin logic.
The three teens overheard this. “Dad's probably about ready to boil,” Larry whispered.
But Chief Parker had better control of his anger than his son gave him credit. “We have enough. It's obvious someone has operated on his face, enlarging his nose...”
“I have a sinus condition,” Roycroft said. “A doc fixed it while I was here.”
“And you're breathing much better now?” Parker asked in feigned concern.
“Glad to hear it. Funny; I thought maybe you had your nose fixed to change your appearance in hope of maybe even changing your identity once you left town.”
“You got no right to say that.”
“Then maybe you can explain this?” He opened a Manila envelope and took out a driver's license. It had what appeared to be a photo of Roycroft as he now appeared, with the scars air-brushed out, and the name Henry Kilgore-. He slid it closer to Roycroft.
“Where did you get this, may I ask?” Jackson asked.
“It was in your client's personal effects which we confiscated as a routine part of his arrest.”
“But did you have a warrant for the contents of his wallet? That's illegal search and seizure, Chief, and totally inadmissible as evidence.”
Parker gave him the arrest warrant. “This includes the right to search any and all belongings found on his person. We thought we might even find the money that was stolen.” He turned to Roycroft. “Or did that cover the medical fee for your surgery?”
“Medical bills are expensive these days, ain't they?” Roycroft retorted.
“Mr. Roycroft! I suggest you volunteer no more information.” Jackson's smile vanished for a fraction of a second. “My client neither admits to nor denies anything related to any alleged surgery.”
“Come off it, shyster!” Roycroft sneered. “I got a bandage on my face. Yeah, I had my nose fixed. Yeah, it cost a bundle. That don't mean I robbed no crummy hick store to pay for it. Bet the safe didn't have enough in the first place.”
Parker said pleasantly, “I didn't say the safe was robbed.”
“Oh?” Roycroft said. “Must've read it in the paper.”
“I didn't tell Sam Newberry anything about the safe. And I cautioned Seth Gray about it too. The only ones who knew it was the safe that was robbed were Seth, my officers, and me.”
Larry grinned. “Dad's got him!”
Chief Parker collected his materials and stood up. “I think that's all for now. Judge Garth will let you know of your bail hearing.” Just before exiting the room he turned back to say, “I'm recommending you be held without bail until further notice.”
“You can't do that!” Jackson said, maintaining his smile while losing his cool. “I have that writ of habeus corpus, remember?”
“Which you forgot to have signed by Judge Garth. And I doubt he'll sign it after I've spoken to him.”
“You're going to talk to the judge and prejudice my client's case before he even comes to trial?” Even the smile was slipping away now, and Jackson's face was ripening like a tomato.
“I'm just going to inform him that you're client is under arrest for robbery, breaking and entering, and attempted flight to avoid arrest. You'll receive a copy of the charges within the hour.”
Parker came out from the room shutting the door behind him. “I'm sure Mr. Jackson would like some private time with his client.”
“You were great, Pa,” Larry said.
“You sure were,” Clark agreed. “I liked the way you kept calm while Roycroft and Mr. Jackson were getting angrier by the minute!”
“What comes next?” Lana asked.
“Next is some boring paperwork,” Chief Parker said. “Why don't you three go home. And I don't want to hear that you boys've been snooping around the Throne place, all right?”
“OK, Pa. We won't. C'mon, fellas.”
Lana didn't mind being included when one of the boys said “fellas” or “guys.” She liked being part of things, because sometimes those things got exciting.
Except Chief Parker hadn't included her in his warning; he had specifically said “boys,” and while she was a tomboy she was still a girl; not a boy.
She hadn't spent much time with Uncle Matt since his arrival, and the rest of today she intended to make up for that. But tonight after everybody was asleep...
* * *
Lana had prepared a special dinner tonight, designed to please both her father and Uncle Matt. For much of the afternoon she and Pa had sat and talked with Matt who told them about living in Metropolis and a little about working for Uncle Sam.
“There's a lot I can't tell you about,” he said after describing some of his research projects. “Much of it is top secret, and even though we're family I can't talk about it.”
“I understand,” Jim Lang said. “There was secret stuff goin' on in the Great War that even some of us grunts on the front lines never knew about.”
“It's especially important not to let private citizens or grunts as you say, soldiers on the battlefield, know anything about some of these projects. They say there are drugs now that make people talk against their will. Truth serums, they call them. We can't take chances in case the wrong person ends up a war prisoner.”
“But we're not at war now,” Lana said.
“There's enough trouble brewing over in Europe,” Matt said. “You and your dad have to have heard about it on the radio or seen it in the paper.”
“We were talking about it in school first semester,” Lana said. “Why do you think that guy Hitler in Germany is bombing London?”
“He wants Germany to rule the world,” Matt answered. “No, that's not exactly it. He wants his Nazis to rule the world. He wants to prove what he calls his Aryan race of supermen are better than anyone else, and he thinks by conquering everybody else on the planet he will prove it.”
“What does he mean by Aryan supermen?” Lana said.
“He says the ideal man --- the superman --- the true Aryan --- is tall, muscular, and blond.”
“But Hitler himself is medium height, stocky, and dark,” Lana protested.
Matt grinned. “Yes; evidently Hitler doesn't know that.” He and Lana laughed at that.
Jim was quietly thinking however. “Wonder if we're going to get enmeshed in this war... like we had to step in on the last one.”
“The War to End All Wars?” Matt said.
Jim nodded. “That's what Wilson called it. And here we are, twenty-odd years after that was over, and it's already started all over again.”
The conversation continued over supper, and Jim and Matt discussed whether the United States would or should get involved. Matt admitted that we were already selling munitions and supplies to England, so that extent we were involved already.
Lana listened and wondered what a war as big as the one her Pa had told her about might do to the world around her. What if it went on for more years than the Great War did, and Larry and Clark might be called in to serve? She shuddered at the thought of possibly losing either of them to enemy fire.
“Did Chief Parker get the goods on that man he arrested at the bus depot?” Matt was asking her.
Lana broke free of her reverie and welcomed the change of subject. She told of what she, Larry and Clark had witnessed at the police station.
And it turned her thoughts back to her original plans for the night.
* * *
Lana lay awake, waiting for her father and uncle to be fast asleep. She wore only her overalls, which covered her from just under her shoulders down past her knees. She crept from her bed and went to he window. The sash was already up, letting in the warm night air. She sat on the sill for a moment listening, making sure there was no sound from their rooms down the hall from hers. This wasn't the first time she had sneaked out at night, but Pa was a sound sleeper; he wasn't so sure about Uncle Matt.
Satisfied she swung both legs out over the sill. A great tree grew just outside her window and a limb of it reached toward the house, just above her window. It was a slight stretch, a bit longer now than a couple years ago; the tree had grown since. But so had she, and her reach was just enough to grasp the limb and pull herself up. Clark liked taking her to the Tarzan movies when they came out, and while she certainly didn't see herself as Johnny Weissmuller she could certainly travel through the trees as well as Maureen O'Sullivan. In a moment she had worked her way down to a level that was safe to drop to the ground.
Lana listened again. No sound from inside.
She had a little pocket flashlight she had bought at Seth's some time back. She didn't need it yet but might once she got to her destination.
Smallville and the area around it sure was quiet after dark. Farmers had always followed old Poor Richard's advice: “Early to bed, early to rise.” Work on a farm by its nature had to begin early and was hard on the body, so those hours were quite natural. But everybody else in Smallville, no matter what their livelihood, seemed to follow the same rule. Lana was alone walking the dirt road that led past the lake, and the second road up the hill to the Thorne Mansion.
The big old house was dark, though the blackened windows still seemed to look out at her. Especially the one in the single high gable. But Lana had something to prove to herself as well as Clark and Larry. She could be just as brave as they were, and maybe even find out something Chief Parker could use to crack this case wide open.
She grinned as she realized her thoughts sounded like a line from a Saint or Falcon movie. But who knows? Maybe she would crack the case, and show those boys something.
Lana made her way to the back of the house, where they had seen the delivery truck go --- seemed like years ago now. There was a padlock on the door, but she had read enough Nancy Drew stories to know what to do about that. She took the hairpin that held her ponytail in place and slowly, carefully started to twist and turn it.
By golly, it worked! She even surprised herself!
Lana eased the lock through the U shaped loop and set it aside. Her hands were damp with sweat and she wiped them against her overalls. A firm grip was needed now, not slippery fingers. The hasp gave a rusty groan on its hinge as she lifted it, laying it carefully down. Again she paused to listen. No sound came from the house above or the basement below.
Now came the real test. The wooden doors were heavy and hard to lift. They would be even harder to hold until she laid then down, and if the hasp alone had a creaky hinge what might the hinges of the doors sound like? But “in for a penny, in for a pound,” as they say. It took both hands and much of her strength to lift one of the doors, swing it open, and keep hold while laying it down. The hinges let out a protest, but there was nothing she could do about it. Once more she waited; still nothing stirring as far as she could hear.
Lana dug her little flashlight from a pocket and shined it into the entrance. There were four or five steep concrete stairs going down, and she made out some dim shapes below; but none seemed to be human. Descending the stairs backwards, like a ladder, seemed to be the cautious thing to do. Her bare foot met the cold concrete floor and the other joined it.
She shined her light on the room. There was the operating table they had seen delivered, a sort of cart with a covered tray under which lay the forms of what she figured were surgical instruments. A large metal door sealed what appeared to be a storage room. Lined up against one wall were about a half dozen tanks that Lana thought at first might be the kind deep sea divers used for oxygen, but these were much too big. Her flashlight revealed that they contained something called nitrous oxide. Now where had she heard of that before?
“It's commonly called 'laughing gas,' said a gruff voice behind her. “But you'll find nothing to laugh about down here.”
A click heralded the sudden glow of an overhead bulb.
Another voice, an older one but even more menacing, ordered her to turn around with her hands raised. She did. The older man who had spoken with Chief Parker was there with three rough looking types. One had his head wrapped in a bandage like Claude Rains in The Invisible Man. She wished the faces of the others were covered as well.
“What are you doing down here?” the older man demanded.
“She's that kid I saw about a week ago on the street,” the man with the bandaged face said. “Her boy friend...” He let that part drop.
“What about her boy friend?”
Lana couldn't see his face but thought she recognized the voice. It was the one who had almost knocked her down when Clark came to her rescue. Mentally she dubbed him "Claude".
“You asked too many questions then, little girl,” "Claude" said, elbowing his way toward her.
The older man held up a hand. “No, let her alone for now. We'll decide what to do with her later. Besides, she may be of use to us.”
“I've heard talk in town,” the older man said. “One of her friends is the son of the police chief.” He stepped closer to her. “Thought maybe you could impress your boy friend and solve the mystery?”
“Larry Parker isn't my boy friend.”
“That's right, doc. She called her boy friend Clark.”
“Doesn't matter. You won't be seeing either one of them for some time.” He signaled to the thug with the gun. “Malloy, tie her up and put her in the storage room for now.”
Malloy and "Claude" “ushered” her at gunpoint to the thick metal door, unlocked it, and Malloy waited while "Claude" tied her tightly with some heavy twine that cut cruelly into her wrists. Then they turned off the room's overhead light and locked her in.
Lana was left alone in the dark. They hadn't gagged her, but there was no use yelling; if anyone could hear it would only be her captors.
Nancy Drew had sometimes found herself in positions like this. But she had Ned Nickerson to help her. Lana sighed. If only Clark or Larry would be anything like Ned.
* * *
It was "Claude"'s turn to leave with his new face. The Doc had been about to start unwrapping his bandages when they heard Lana in the next room. He finished the job and the Doc was satisfied with it; so was Garvin, the one Lana thought of as "Claude". One of the Doc's assistants led the way into the sub-basement and through the tunnel to the mouth of the cave. The boat was waiting there, and they carried it out to the lake and got in, each taking an oar.
* * *
Hobo Joe couldn't believe it. Here was the boat again, this time going the other way. No one saw him as he watched the boat glide by.
And this time he hadn't been nipping.
* * *
It was just past sunup. Clark had finished milking the cows and gathering the eggs. While Ma fixed breakfast he thought he'd take a look at the fence surrounding the pig pen; it had needed attention for some time.
Yes, some of those rails were rotted and wouldn't hold up if one of the pigs decided to make a break for it. He could fix this in a jiffy. There were some rails already cut over by the barn. All he had to do was bring a couple of them over, use the edge of his hand to chop them the right length, and fasten them in place. He ran over to the barn, took a rail under each arm, and started toward the pig pen.
“Hey Clark! You gonna hurt yerself tryin' t' carry them things!”
Clark had just been about to break into a run when he heard Hobo Joe behind him. He dropped the rails as though suddenly realizing the weight was too much for him and pretended to stagger against the barn wall, leaning there a moment.
“Gosh Joe, you're right. Trying to get this job done before breakfast, you know?”
“Sure. I'd be glad t' help, if you don't mind.”
Clark grinned. “Not at all. Let's do it one at a time. You take one end, I'll take the other.”
Nobody usually came to the Kent farm this early in the morning. Clark had felt confident no one would see him use Super Strength and Speed to fix the fence. Joe's unexpected arrival changed things. As they worked on replacing the rails Joe explained that he had wandered over wondering if there might be a day's work or more for him. “Guess I came just in time, huh?”
“You sure did.”
“Got some news too,” Joe added.
“Oh? What's that?”
“Oh, I'll save that for later. Let's git this job done first, OK?”
Working together they had the fence repaired just in time to hear Sara Kent ring the triangle for breakfast. “Wanna stay for breakfast, Joe?” Clark asked. “Ma usually makes enough for a half dozen as it is.”
“Don't mind if I do. Thankee, Clark.”
Sara didn't mind at all, neither did Eben. This wasn't the first time Sara had fed him for helping out on the farm. Others in the area had often done the same.
It was a farmer's breakfast, which meant there was more food than many city folk had for supper. When all were full and pushed themselves back from the table, Joe thanked Sara for the meal and she told him he was welcome.
“Joe, you told me you had some news,” Clark said.
“Oh yeah, plumb near forgot.” Joe chuckled. “It happened again last night.”
“What's that?” Eben asked.
“I saw 'em in a boat agin. Only this time they was goin' the opposite way.”
“You mean away from the shore, and across the lake?” Clark asked.
“Yep. They was just two of 'em this time, both of 'em rowin'. I pondered whether mebbe they was goin' toward the river and into the next town.”
Clark thought that sounded right; after all, Roycroft had been caught at the bus depot. If there were any more of these men being smuggled out they might not take a chance on the same route twice. “Did they see you?”
“If'n they did, I prob'ly wouldn't be here tellin' y'all about it, would I?”
The Kents all acknowledged the reasoning in that.
Someone was knocking on their front door. “I'll get it,” Clark said.
It was Jim and Matt Lang. Both seemed distracted and a bit worried. “Good morning, Clark,” Jim Lang said. “Is Lana here?”
“No, Mr. Lang, I haven't seen her today. Why?”
Pa and Ma Kent along with Joe came out to the parlor to see what was going on. After exchanging good mornings all around, Jim answered Clark's question,
“She didn't come down to breakfast, so I went up to see what was wrong. She wasn't there, and I thought mebbe she had come over here.”
“Come on back for some coffee,” Sara offered. “I'm sure Lana just went for a morning walk. She'll come home soon enough.”
“Thankee, Sara,” Jim said. “You really think so?”
Matt chimed in. “Jim, you know that daughter of yours is just as headstrong as her Ma was, God rest her. She might've grabbed her pole an' gone fishing, or most anything.”
“I suppose you're right,” Jim said. He took a deep breath. “An' I have to admit that coffee sure smells good.”
“Then come on back and have a cup.” She led the way and the men followed except for Eben.
“I'll be along in a moment,” Eben said. After the others were out of earshot he motioned to the sofa and the two sat down. “What is it, son?”
“I have a feeling Lana is in trouble. And I think it has to do with Thorne Mansion.”
“You want me to call Chief Parker?”
“I don't know. If Lana tried snooping around and they caught her, they might hurt her if the police try to raid the place.”
“But it's his job. What can you do, Clark?”
“I've gotta do something.”
Eben saw that Clark was determined to “do something,” whatever it might be. “All right, Clark. Just be careful. Whatever you do, be careful.”
“I will, Pa.” After a moment he added, “If you don't hear back from me in an hour, call Chief Parker.”
“All right.” Eben went out to the kitchen calling, “Hope you saved some java for me!”
Clark went out the front door. No one was around or could see him from the back of the house. He broke into a run, hitting the main road, skirting along the shore of the lake toward the caves. If the boat Hobo Joe saw came from the caves, then I was right about there being a tunnel leading to the Mansion. I've got to... His plan and his speed stopped there. Someone was nosing around the cave. It was Larry!
By the time Larry saw him Clark had slowed to a normal speed. “Hey, Clark! You feel like doing a little spelunking too?”
“Yeah, I guess great minds think alike.” Clark debated whether he should tell Larry the news, both about the boat and about Lana. He decided on revealing both.”And I wondered if the boat Joe saw might have come from this cave.”
“Could be,” Larry answered. “Wanna take a look?”
Clark refrained from telling him he had done so before and what he had found. “Sure. Oh drat, I forgot a flashlight.” No he didn't; not needing one he hadn't picked one up.
“I came prepared!” Larry waved his flashlight like a hero's sword. “Tch tch, Clark. You've been a Boy Scout as long as I have. What's our motto?”
Clark grinned sheepishly. “Be Prepared. OK, take away a couple of my merit badges. Ready?”
“Yeah. Let's go.” Larry led the way, turning on the flashlight soon after they were inside. They hadn't gone far before they saw a boat lying to one side. “Bet that's the one Joe saw.”
“I bet it is,” Clark agreed. It hadn't been there when he had investigated before. They probably had just been in too much of a hurry to stow it properly last night.
They went further in, shining the light down the side tunnels but concentrating on the main one. Clark looked ahead with his X-Ray Vision and listened closely with Super Hearing.
Then he heard something. It was faint, just a groan. But he figured he recognized the voice.
“What is it, Clark?”
“Hmmm? Oh, just thought I heard something. Did you hear it?”
Larry listened for a moment. “No, I don't hear anything.”
Clark sensed that the tunnel was curving toward the hill where the Thorne Mansion sat. It wasn't far from here that the tunnel had come to a dead end; and there it was. Somewhere along here was a hidden latch to open it. He had hoped to be here alone, find the latch, and enter the tunnel to the Mansion. But with Larry here...
Then the sound of the groan came again. It was clearer, and was definitely Lana!
“Did you hear that?” Clark asked.
“No, I didn't.” Then there was a sound they both heard. “Wait --- yeah! I hear it!”
But this wasn't Lana's voice. It was several murmured voices, and they were men. And then the stony barrier started to move, grinding its way inward.
Clark and Larry stepped back, Clark shielding his friend --- though how he could do it without revealing his powers, he didn't know.
The old man was standing just beyond the opening, and the two rough looking men behind him pulled guns from inside their coats.
“What's this? A couple more young snoopers!” It was the old man they called Doc. “Come looking for your little girl friend?”
“Clark! They must mean Lana!”
“You're Clark?” Doc asked. “Then you must be the Parker boy. You think because your dad is the Chief of Police that you lead a charmed life?”
“When my Pa finds out I'm missing, and Clark and Lana too...”
Clark admired his friend's bravado but feared where it might lead.
“I won't keep you from Lana any longer. Come with us.”
“Do what he says,” Clark told Larry. Larry scowled at them, but obediently raised his hands, as did Clark, and followed them through the tunnel. As Clark had surmised it led finally to the basement of the Thorne Mansion. There was the “dorm room” that Clark had seen with his Super Vision, and three or four more tough customers sat smoking and playing cards.
“Just a couple more Junior G-Men,” the Doc said. “Boyle, put them in cold storage with their female side-kick.”
Clark pictured Lana hearing herself called a “side-kick;” she'd probably do just that: kick him in the side. Or at least the shins.
“OK, Doc.” He gestured with his gun. “Get moving, you two. Through that door.” He shoved them through a door at the far end of the dorm. The area beyond was set up like an operating room, and faint smell of alcohol was in the air. Doc had passed him a key which he used to unlock a thick metal door.
“Lana!” Clark exclaimed.
“Clark! They've got you too? And Larry!”
“All right, get in.” Boyle said. “You'll have plenty of time to play house or whatever you three do for fun.” He sneered. “Only you'll have to do it in the dark. I remember first time I was with a babe in the dark. We had some fun.”
When Clark and Larry were inside he turned off the light and shut the door. You could heard the key turn in the lock.
“Clark? Where are you?”
Clark could see her in the dark, but pretended to grope for her. “Here, Lana. Follow my voice.”
They met and she cuddled into his arms. “Guess you two came looking for me and got yourselves caught, huh?”
“Something like that,” Clark said.
Larry told her about accidentally meeting Clark at the cave and finding the secret entrance, only to be found themselves.
“Does anybody know we're here? Lana asked.
“I told Pa to call Chief Parker if I was gone more than an hour,” Clark said.
Larry gave a rueful chuckle. “That's more than I told my Dad.”
“What about my Pa and Uncle Matt?”
“They came to our place looking for you,” Clark said, “so they're with my folks.”
“Will they let us out of here?” Lana asked.
All three knew the answer.
Clark knew he could easily break this door down and he and his friends could escape, but not without having to make a lot of explanations; and some of those things that would need explaining were ones that even he didn't know the answers.
He concentrated on listening. No one was outside the door, so they hadn't left a guard. Apparently they considered the room escape-proof; and for all intents and purposes, despite his powers, that was true. But he could hear a conversation in the next room: what he had called the dorm room. Clark focused on that conversation, and didn't like what he heard.
* * *
One of the Doc's “patients” had just returned from town with news: some of the locals had come to the Police Chief saying their kids were missing. So was the Chief's son. And the Chief was getting together a posse.
“So they'll be here any time,” Doc said. “We've got to get away before they do.”
“Go on the lam? Boyle said. “Thought you said we had a perfect setup here.”
“Well it isn't anymore. Didn't you hear Howard say the town bum saw the boat not once --- but twice? They'll probably come prowling around the cave, like those two boys did.”
“Then how we gonna get away?” another crook named Meyers said.
“Through the front door. We've got enough cars here to take us.”
“What about all this equipment?”
“We have to abandon it,” Doc said, “and open up shop somewhere else.
“But before we do, there are three snoops we have to take care of...”
* * *
Clark wondered what the Doc had in mind. It would be very soon, and it wouldn't be pleasant.
* * *
Chief Parker was indeed putting together a posse. He didn't like the idea of private citizens getting themselves involved and probably in danger in police work, but he only had two other men available and there was no telling how many were holed up in the Thorne Mansion. Eben Kent and the Lang brothers had already agreed over the phone, and arrived with their own weapons. Eben had an old squirrel gun and Jim Lang brought shotguns for himself and Matt. Even Hobo Joe had volunteered, and once Parker was satisfied as to his sobriety he gave him a shotgun from the rack.
So, a half dozen strong, they divided themselves between two squad cars and started toward the old Thorne Mansion.
* * *
“This tank contains nitrous oxide,” Doc said, “popularly known as 'laughing gas.' Only you won't be laughing very long. A little of this, in the right dosage, will keep a patient under for the time it takes to perform an operation. A whole tank of it, released in a tiny sealed room like this... well, by the time anyone finds you they'll next have to plan your funerals. And we'll be far away from here.”
Lana again huddled close to Clark. Larry even moved closer to the two of them.
Clark believed he was immune, but he didn't know for sure. At any rate, neither Lana nor Larry could last long. But a plan started to form in his mind.
“Shame to have to end your lives so soon,” Doc said, as he and the gunman with him moved to the door, “but that's what you get for meddling in things better left alone.” He signaled to the gunman to go out the door. “All right, Howard.” Doc left the room.
The one called Howard opened the valve and followed Doc out. The door was shut and again locked.
“At least they left the light on this time,” Larry said. An unbidden chuckle escaped from his throat.
“Yeah; so we can watch each other choke to death.” For some reason Lana found that hilarious.
Clark laughed along with them; he felt no real effect of the gas, and was glad of it. “We're going to laugh ourselves to death!” he “joked.”
The general laughter continued a moment or two more before first Lana then Larry started to drift into unconsciousness. Clark too allowed himself to slump to the ground, just in case either of them was awake enough to notice.
He waited a moment, praying he didn't wait too long. Larry and Lana were both totally unconscious.
Clark shut the valve, though there was already enough gas in the room to kill several elephants. Then he charged the door and it flew off its hinges with a metallic grunt. Taking Lana under one arm and Larry under the other, he leaped up the steps knocking the outside doors open with his head.
Once in the open air he set them both down.
There was a commotion at the front of the house.
“This is Chief Parker,” he heard. “Put down any weapons and surrender with your hands up.”
The Chief was here! Clark took a peek with his Super Vision and saw he wasn't alone. Then he shivered to see among those in the posse were his Pa, the Langs, and even Joe!
He had to do something to make sure no one was hurt. The gang was desperate; Clark knew it. Rather than surrender themselves or their guns, there would be a battle.
And the first shots were fired --- from the house!
Chief Parker ordered a return fire, and the gun battle was on!
He had to do something; but what? The posse had taken cover behind the cars, but the criminals were all inside the house. They were in a much better position. And Clark knew that Chief Parker wasn't equipped with tear gas or anything like that. He wouldn't try smoking them out, believing he, Larry and Lana were still inside.
Uncle Matt raised himself just a moment and a bullet struck him! He seemed to spin as he fell behind the car he'd used as protection.
That was it. Clark had to act before anyone else was hurt!
X-Ray Vision gave him the criminals' location in the house in a glance. If he went back in he might be seen, but he had to take that chance.
Clark descended the stairs into the basement, running at Super Speed through the operating room, the dorm, and to the steps leading up. Maybe if he was fast enough they might not even see him; or at least, not enough to recognize him.
There they were; the noise of their own gunfire and that of the Chief and his posse covered his movements. A quick decision told him what to do.
One of the crooks suddenly gave a cry as he dropped a revolver that suddenly was red hot.
The barrel of a rifle unexpectedly turned to rubber, drooping as though somehow become almost liquid.
As the others gasped at what was happening with their comrades, a wind swept through the front room. Rifles, revolvers, automatics, even Tommy guns suddenly disappeared from their hands, only to end up as a pile of useless junk in a corner. The wind hadn't behaved like a proper wind should; it had come from nowhere, changed direction instantly and arbitrarily, and how the ---- did it grab their weapons from them and crush them into scrap metal in seconds?
After several moments of hearing no fire from the house, Chief Parker lifted his bullhorn again. “You in the house! Come out with your hands up! If you don't start coming out by the count of three, we'll come in after you!” Parker was taking a gamble: he guessed that they had either run out of ammo or were at least low on it. It was a risk.
Doc suddenly felt himself seized from behind and shoved out the front door by what must have been the same invisible wind that had taken their weapons. A couple more crooks where shoved out, colliding and almost knocking him off the porch. Chief Parker was already half up the steps, two or three sets of handcuffs in his hand, with his deputies following. Jim and Hobo Joe were covering the prisoners with their shotguns as the officers handcuffed them.
Clark had retreated to a room at the back of the house, but could see it all from where he was.
Then he started to hear moans and yawns from the back yard. Grinning, he hurried out to join his friends.
* * *
Lana sat between Clark and Larry on her front porch.
“I still don't understand how we got free,” Lana said.
“Guess they didn't lock the door after all,” Clark said. “I managed to open it and drag the two of you outside.” More or less.
“Didn't the laughing gas put you to sleep?” Larry said. “All I remember is laughing like an idiot then wham! I was out like a light.”
“I can't say too much about how it happened.” True in a number of ways. “But I must have stayed awake long enough to reach that valve and shut it off. Then I tried the door and it opened.” Clark prayed there wouldn't be any more questions about their escape.
“I've said for some time our buddy Clark lives a charmed life,” Larry said. “Like that time we went hiking last fall, just before school started, and there were hunters around. One thought he had accidentally shot you, but you weren't hit or hurt.”
“Yeah; guess that's what it is.” Clark wished again that he knew more about where he came from, how he had gotten these strange powers.
“What about those men your father arrested?” Lana asked.
Clark was glad of the change of subject.
“Dad had them all fingerprinted and sent photos with the fingerprints to all the major cities around. All of them are wanted somewhere or another. Some of them are even wanted by the FBI!”
Lana whistled. “We sure were lucky too!”
“You said it!” Clark agreed.
“And the one they called Doc?” Larry added. “He's wanted in a bunch of states for practicing medicine after his license was revoked. Seems he was into all kinds of illegal stuff, not just doing plastic surgery on fugitives from the law.” He concluded that his father was waiting for officers from other jurisdictions to come and pick them up. “I think one or two of them are due here tomorrow.”
They sat quietly for a while, watching the sun slowly glide down to the treetops.
Suddenly there was a bustle inside. Uncle Matt's frantic voice was heard.
Lana rose and started in. “Let's see what's up.”
Uncle Matt was digging through his luggage, and desperately going through papers from his briefcase, studying the same ones over and over. “They're gone! How --- Who could have gotten to them?”
“What's wrong, Uncle Matt?” Lana asked.
“I had some important papers; notes and drawings for a project I was working on for the War Department. They're gone!”
* * *
“The Mystery of the Stolen Plans”
"Like The Only Real Magic -- The Magic Of Knowledge"