Leaving Rikki's, night air cool after the heat of the bar, slim blond on his arm -- lips nuzzling against his neck, teeth nipping gently, then unexpected sharp pain that went on and on -- graffiti-covered wall opposite receding, knees buckling, white noise filling his ears---
Tearing sensation, someone crying out (him?), hot sticky wetness on the hand against his neck -- closing his eyes, slumping down against the wall -- sound of fists connecting with flesh, clanging of metal (trash cans?).
'Some -- people -- never -- learn.' Deep voice he didn't recognise, punctuated with heavy punches.
Opening his eyes again. The blond careening against him.
'But then -- you're not people are you?'
Then suddenly pressure disappearing -- nothing but... dust? Sneezing, shaking dust off his clothes.
'Name's Angel,' his rescuer had said, handing him a business card. Taking it automatically. Pulling out his cell phone, dialling.
'Enriques ... need picking up ...'
Angel silhouetted against the distant LA streetlights, walking away without a backward glance, black leather coat flapping. Leaving him on his knees in an alley, erection (useless now) pressing uncomfortably against his jeans.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS -- LA
'My first thought when I opened my eyes was that he must be an angel.'
Lex Luthor grimaced and clicked off the tape player. It wasn't just the sound of his own voice, several years of recording memos whilst driving had almost inured him to that---he'd have to work harder on that section of his memoirs.
Lex thought back to that moment when he'd opened his eyes, to that face against the steel-grey sky, his own personal angel---but for some reason he couldn't see it clearly any more. Wide grey-green eyes kept changing to a deep chocolate brown, soft fawn cloth to smooth black leather, innocent concern to world-weary sarcasm.
Must be an angel---that was the key. He remembered now: Clark hadn't been the first angel to rescue him.
He opened the third desk drawer down, riffled through a business card organiser embossed in silver with 2001 A--E, drew out the card. He turned it over and over in his hands, the stained glass behind his desk painting the white rectangle alternately red and violet.
It was the tackiest corporate logo he'd ever seen, more like a vulture than an angel. No web address. On the off-chance, he tapped 'Angel Investigations' and 'Los Angeles' into his favourite search engine. The logo looked even more hideous at twenty by fifteen on his flat-screen monitor. He clicked on a link at random. 'Angel Investigations combines extensive expertise in all types of supernatural phenomenon with the latest scientific research methods,' read the blurb. 'Our staff are fully qualified in demonology, magic and multi-dimensional physics.' Web design clearly not one of their skills -- however, for the case that was pressing on his mind, an intriguing combination.
Lex bounded up from his desk, tapped his fingers on top of one of the rosewood cabinets that lined the library wall. He'd definitely investigated Angel at the time---Now, where would the file have been archived? He retrieved a thick folder with a sigh of triumph after a search of only minute or two. Several sheets of Wolfram & Hart headed paper had been stapled to the front cover of the file. He scanned them rapidly. 'Highly confidential profile prepared for Mr A. Luthor. Subject: Angel. Alternative identities: Angel Jones, Angelus, Liam Fergus Walsh. Born: 1726, Galway, Ireland...'
A few minutes later, Lex tapped a number into the phone on his desk, pressed speakerphone and slid the volume up to near max, leaned back in his chair.
'Angel Investigations, we help the hopeless!' Smiled at the trite words and the bright feminine tones. Faint sounds in the background -- a baby crying?
Cut the connection. He'd get Andrea to call and make an appointment with their director. Some things were better handled in person, and after that fiasco with his father at the plant, he needed to get out of Smallville. He fancied another visit to Rikki's -- his last encounter there had ended much too abruptly.
Lex was unaccountably disappointed that Angel wasn't the director of the eponymous agency. In fact, it would be difficult to find anyone less like the rescuer he remembered than Wesley Wyndham-Price. The slight man on the other side of the heavy oak desk, complete with ill-fitting jacket and earnest look through wire-framed glasses, would clearly be more at home in a library than an alley brawl. His over-precise enunciation reminded Lex of the masters in all those English public schools he'd attended, though this accent was overlaid with a faint California twang -- probably acquired from that out-of-work model he'd got working as some kind of secretary.
'So how can we help you, Mr Luthor?'
Lex decided to give Wyndham-Price a chance to rehearse his demonology credentials. 'What do you know about demons that appear human?'
'There are several possibilities.' Wyndham-Price took a sip of his coffee, grimaced, then leaned back in his leather chair, tapping a fountain pen against the back of his hand, clearly organising his thoughts. 'Several demons can take on human appearance for a time -- Wraithers are the most common in North America -- but their true form usually re-appears after a few weeks...'
'This seems to be a permanent look.' Lex picked up his own coffee, took a mouthful and forced himself to swallow the foul-tasting liquid. Christ knows, after last night's rediscovery of a selection of LA's more risqu distractions, he could do with a little caffeine in the system.
'Of course, vampires can---'
'Well, he's certainly not a vampire.' Lex smiled to himself; anyone less like a creature of the night was hard to imagine. 'I even tested extra garlic on his pizza,' he quipped.
'Glamours -- a simple form of perception-changing spell -- can deceive viewers. But again that's usually not permanent.' Wyndham-Price was in his element now, running down his mental list, ticking off options with the pen against the fingers of his left hand. 'Part demons with human heritage can sometimes pass as human but express various demonic powers. And, of course, we would need to consider demon possession...'
Lex zoned out, letting the words flow over him. Distinct lack of Californian sunlight pleasantly soothing for his tired eyes, unfamiliar sickly sweet smell that he couldn't quite pin down (boiled milk?)---He dragged his attention back to the matter in hand with some difficulty. (Dozing off would be bad for the Luthor image.) He hadn't got all day to spend in this airless office drinking stewed filter coffee and listening to Wyndham-Price's seemingly interminable babble. The man clearly knew his stuff. 'I want to hire you to investigate an acquaintance of mine.' He opened his briefcase and extracted several bulging manila files.
It took almost nine minutes for Wyndham-Price to ask the question that Lex had been anticipating. 'May I ask... What are your motivations for this investigation? This... uh... being seems to have no malign intent---you even say that he's saved your life?'
'Twice, actually.' Lex briefly looked the other man straight in the eye, then slid his eyes down to the papers spread across the desk in a way that suggested he was about to reveal something he was slightly ashamed about. (He was proud of that look, honed from years of practice in dealing with his father.) 'My family has had enough dealings with a certain LA law firm -- I'm sure you know the one to which I'm referring -- that when something supernatural saves my life, I worry that years downstream, it's gonna to demand my first-born son as a reward...'
'Why, congratulations, Mr Luthor,' Wyndham-Price said dryly. 'The gossip columns haven't caught on to the fact that you're considering starting a family.'
'More immediately, I'm concerned about this.' Lex extracted some clippings from the Smallville Ledger and the Metropolis Inquisitor from his briefcase and pushed them across the desk.
'Body of woman found in warehouse,' Wyndham-Price read out. 'Identified as twenty-three year old Miss Terri Hampshire, from Smallville, Kansas, who had been missing for five days. A police spokeswoman said that the death was being treated as "suspicious", and expressed concern about two other missing women...' He put down the clipping. 'How is this relevant, Mr Luthor?'
'Miss Hampshire worked as a secretary at the LuthorCorp fertiliser plant I manage. Mrs Johnson works part time as an assistant chef at Luthor Manor. Miss Atkins is the daughter of one of my security team.'
'You're suggesting that Kent is behind these disappearances? That he's targeting people in your employment?'
'I'm concerned about the welfare of the people that I employ.' Lex took care to avoid confirming or denying Wyndham-Price's conclusion. 'Naturally, I'm determined to explore all avenues to ensure their safety.'
'It would hardly be standard form,' Wyndham-Price said. 'Usually the objects of such retribution would be closer to the target -- relatives, friends, loved ones.'
Lex smiled. Best not to admit how few people would fall into those categories. 'Let's just say I don't wish it to come to that.' He opened his chequebook. 'Now, shall we discuss your fee?'
When they re-emerged from Wyndham-Price's office, deal done, the secretary-cum-model was chatting animatedly to a skinny, dark-haired woman who hadn't been around earlier. Another man was slouching with his back to them on the other side of the Art Deco foyer. Looked like Angel Investigations really needed his business.
'I can't believe he doesn't remember me!' exclaimed the secretary.
Wyndham-Price coughed. 'Mr Luthor, may I introduce Cordelia Chase, our office administrator... Winifred Burkle---'
'Call me Fred---'
'One of our researchers. And this is...'
The man turned round. Angel's large hands and black leather coat looked incongruous against the powder-blue-wrapped infant he was cradling to his shoulder. (Scratch one perfectly serviceable fantasy.)
'We've met,' said Lex.
Angel placed the baby in a crib that Lex hadn't noticed earlier, nestled behind the foyer counter, then held out his hand. Lex pressed it---no colder than some of his father's business associates.
'I never got to thank you in person for saving my life,' Lex said, with a warmth that was at least 50% genuine.
'It's kind of a hobby of mine.'
Measured dose of pleasantries dispensed, Lex stumbled down the steps outside the Hyperion. He screwed up his eyes against the midday sun as he scanned the parked cars for the waiting LuthorCorp limo, delved in his pocket for his sunglasses. Apart from the whole sunlight issue, there was one major difference between his two angelic rescuers. This Angel had cashed the cheque he'd sent, the accompanying comps slip (he'd found a photocopy in the file) scrawled simply, 'Thanks -- LL'.
'Mr Luthor wants us to investigate him.' Wesley placed several poster-sized photographs on the table in the foyer. 'Clark Kent, resident of Smallville, Kansas.' He settled down on one of the sofas and rapidly filled in the others on the details -- without, however, mentioning his hunch that the supercilious Mr Luthor, if not exactly lying, might well be leaving something important out.
Fred picked up a three-quarter shot, held it up to the light. 'He sure doesn't look like any kind of regular demon.'
'Gotta go with you on that,' said Cordelia. 'Most demons don't have a complexion that looks like something out of an Ivory soap commercial.'
'I'll have you know, my shade of green is considered very attractive in refined circles,' Lorne retorted, straightening the lapels of his tomato-red jacket and smoothing down the hair behind his horns as he jogged down the staircase to join them.
'And then there's usually the whole slime thing. Bit of a give-away.'
'Slime isn't that major a component of your average demon's ambience---And you should know, cupcake.'
'I can assure you, Krevlorneswath of the Deathwok clan, absolutely no slime!' Cordelia exclaimed, real anguish poorly hidden behind her bluster. She picked up a couple of the photographs, studied them. 'Are you sure you said he was only fifteen? 'Cuz he sure looks---'
'Hot,' supplied Fred.
'Well, I was going to say fifteen-going-on-twenty... But not gonna disagree.'
Wesley changed the subject hastily before matters got further out of hand. 'I reviewed all the options with Mr Luthor earlier. This is certainly no ordinary demon that we're dealing with.'
'What do we know about this Mr Luthor?' asked Fred. 'Why is he investigating this person?' Wesley smiled to himself. Trust Fred's endearingly scatty approach to come up with the real question.
'His father's, like, the fifth richest man in America,' gushed Cordelia. Close contact with money tended to bring out a side of her that usually (thankfully) lay dormant. 'What more do we need to know?'
'At least he'll be paying the bill then,' said Angel. 'I assume you negotiated favourable terms, Wes?' Wesley didn't dignify the remark with an answer. Angel glanced towards the crib in the corner. 'College fund, you know?'
'I met them at a ski lodge in Aspen.' Cordelia's face was wistful. 'Of course that was before the IRS pretty much made snow at Christmas, like, a Hellmouth freaky thing,' she added. 'I'm surprised he didn't remember me, I thought I'd made quite an impression.'
'There may be a reason for that,' said Angel. 'That vamp he was making out with the other year? It was male. You might be better off checking out David Nabitt.' Angel didn't sound enthralled by the prospect.
'So his motivations for investigating Kent might be mixed,' said Wesley. They all stared down at the photographs spread across the table.
'Eww.' Cordelia wrinkled up her nose. 'Don't even go there.' (Interesting. Wesley would have thought that the girl might have acquired a rather more enlightened attitude, given the amount of time she spent consuming the gossip columns -- though usually, he had to admit, only during the office's slack periods.)
Angel drew himself up to his full height, crossed his arms over his chest, looked Wesley straight in the eye. 'Do his motivations matter?' he asked.
To an extent Angel was right, Wesley thought. A discreet investigation seemed unlikely to do any harm, even if the fears that Luthor had expressed about the teenager seemed likely to be unfounded. And the size of fee that the young man had mentioned with an almost obscene casualness---Well, it would certainly alleviate Wesley's sleepless nights over how to pay the Hyperion's three-figure monthly electricity charge.
'The case is supernatural,' Angel continued, 'Luthor can pay the bill---where do we start?'
'Mr Luthor left us several files of data,' said Wesley, 'and a sample of some kind of meteorite for us to analyse.' He opened a slim polystyrene-lined case and removed a small metal container.
'What's with the protective container?' asked Fred. 'I thought it was just a rock sample.'
'I suppose it's just a safety precaution. Mr Luthor said that the rock emits a novel type of radiation that debilitates Kent, but has no short-term effect on humans or animals.'
'Key word: short term,' said Cordelia. 'What does he mean "no short-term effect on humans"?'
'I'll just take Connor upstairs,' said Angel. He retreated rapidly, his son in his arms.
'Actually short term is two words,' said Wesley, trying to prise off the lid. 'Mr Luthor has given us a very comprehensive report, detailing the effects of long-term exposures in laboratory tests---There...'
The lid popped off, cannoning a clear plastic container onto the table. It immediately rolled off onto the floor, and Lorne stooped to pick it up. He straightened, put one hand to his head. 'Ouch. I think I'm getting a migraine right between the horns. I just knew mixing Bailey's and tequila last night was a mistake.'
Fred retrieved the sample. 'No effect on humans, but it seems to affect demons.'
Cordelia picked it up. 'I don't feel anything.'
Fred looked confused for a moment, then her face cleared. 'Oh, I see what you mean.'
Angel reappeared, taking the stairs two at a time. Cordelia turned towards the vampire and lobbed the container vaguely in his direction. 'Catch!'
'Cordy! Careful!' exclaimed Wesley. 'That might be valuable.'
'Cool colour,' said Angel. The powder glistened under the foyer spotlights. 'Goes well with your complexion, Lorne,' he added, holding the pot up towards Lorne's face.
Lorne flinched away, rubbing his forehead. 'Do that again, and I'm gonna need a trip to the little boy's room.'
'Not all demons, just Lorne,' Cordelia said.
'That's a bit of an over-generalisation,' said Wesley. 'You only have a small fraction of demon implanted by the Powers, it might only manifest itself in certain ways relating to the visions.' Wesley sighed. The demonstration had only rubbed in the fact that they still knew worryingly little about the repercussions of Cordelia's partial demonisation. 'And vampires are a somewhat different case.' He glanced across at Angel, slightly uncomfortable about rehearsing the Council's teachings about vampires in front of one of their kind. 'Strictly, a vampire can be thought of as a human infected with a demon entity that endows the body with life force after physical death.'
'I'm guessing the Deathwok clan don't usually make a habit of passing as human?' said Angel.
'Not without nearly as much make-up as Liz Taylor. The horns tend to kinda give it away.'
'Cordelia's hypothesis is worth looking into though,' said Fred. 'I can test the meteorite sample against a panel of different demons -- you could help, Lorne? -- cross-check the databases for those that might be able to assume human form.'
'Okay,' said Wesley. 'Fred, you focus on analysing the meteorite rock.' He retrieved a stack of files from his office and extracted a thick spiral-bound volume. 'You might like to start by reading the report Mr Luthor provided.'
'Activity and toxicology profiles of meteorite sample from Smallville, Kansas. S. Hamilton, PhD, Cadmus Laboratories, Metropolis,' Fred read from the title page. She flicked to the end. 'Wow. It's like three hundred and twenty-four pages of printouts,' she added happily. 'This could take a while...'
'Mr Luthor's certainly been thorough,' said Cordelia.
'Angel, will you and Lorne be able to cover our existing case load and look after Connor?'
'Sure thing, Wes.'
'Cordy, give Gunn a call.' Wesley removed three tickets from his jacket pocket, held one out to Cordelia. 'The three of us are going to Smallville.'
'Ooh, business class!' Cordelia's face lit up. 'I'm liking this case already.'
Driving back from Metropolis airport in the rush hour had been a mistake. An hour and a half of cruising the interstate at over a hundred miles an hour, cocooned in Radiohead and leather and a hundred and fifty thousand dollars worth of silver-grey metal, had been insufficient to erase Lex's lingering annoyance at being forced to crawl through the city traffic like any ordinary mortal. On impulse, he pulled up outside the Beanery, killed the engine, then the sound system. Leaned forward, chest pressed against the leather-encased steering wheel, forehead resting against the cool of the windshield. Breathed out one long breath. Let his head adjust to the silence. Then carefully peeled off his driving gloves, climbed out of the car, shrugged on his jacket.
Shivered, goose bumps on his arms that would be raising hairs if there were any left to raise. Sensation -- inexplicable yet undeniable -- that... Something was watching him. He turned round slowly, scanned the flat roofs of the shops on the far side of the street. For just a moment he was sure that there had been something there, darker shape against the stars (so unnaturally, dangerously bright here, outside the city).
Lex shrugged. Whatever it was, it had disappeared. He pushed open the door of the coffee bar, filled his lungs with the smoke-laden overwarm air, systematically scanned the tables in the half-empty caf.
'Clark,' he said.
'Hey Lex!' The teenager grinned up at him, shaking his absurdly long hair away from his eyes.
He gestured towards the counter. 'Care for another cappuccino?'
'Sure, thanks---actually, I was on the latte.' Clark joined him at the counter. 'So... uncovered any more info on those disappearances?'
With Clark at his side, sporting his trademark 'puppy not yet grown into his paws' slouch, Lex felt just a touch uncomfortable about having led the LA agency to suspect he might be behind this latest round of Smallville weirdness.
'Thought it was you that had the inside track, Clark. Wasn't it you who found Miss Hampshire's body?'
Just a touch uncomfortable. After all, the transcripts of Clark's routine questioning -- files from the Smallville Sheriffs' Office cost pitifully little to obtain -- revealed that he had clear alibis covering two out of the three disappearances.
'Yeah.' Clark's mobile face screwed up in an expression of extreme distaste, and he made an obvious attempt to change the subject. 'Missed you last night, where were you?'
Lex put a note down on the counter, picked up his cappuccino. 'Had to be in Metropolis on business.' He slid the latte towards Clark. 'Let's sit down, I need a break -- traffic in Metropolis is like hell on earth.'
Much later that night, Lex sat cross-legged on the chilly concrete floor of what was beginning to feel like his personal chapel -- the blue-grey Porsche at the centre of the circle of spotlights its bizarre altarpiece. Didn't need to stare at the car, knew every detail by heart. Did it anyway. Traced over the neat hole in the windshield, the roof peeled back like some extremely expensive sardine can.
Asked himself Wyndham-Price's question over and over. He just wasn't sure he knew the answer.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS -- SMALLVILLE
Smallville was such a dump. Cordelia had spent the day sitting in the local information section of the library, poring over a microfiche reader scanning back copies of the Smallville Ledger. She yawned, rubbed her eyes. (Who'd have thought that cows kept on lowing, or whatever it was they did, after midnight? And the PTB should just ban the whole dawn chorus thing.) Her investigation into the mysterious fifteen year old was going precisely nowhere. From the accidental death rate around here, anyone would've thought Smallville had its own private Hellmouth---but there was nothing to link any of the reports to Clark Kent.
She poked a peephole in the dusty venetian blind with her ballpoint for the umpteenth time that day. Below the window, sagging green-and-white striped awnings dripped sullenly onto trestle tables. The monochrome branches of the birch trees scattered around the edge of the market square sported garish orange lanterns -- left-over Christmas decorations? Jesus, someone should tell this town to catch up to the pace of 21st century America, it was the middle of January for chrissakes! At least the morning's incessant drizzle-cum-sleet seemed to have stopped. Finally. Cordelia checked her watch. Nearly two hours before school was out and she needed to show her face in the town's single coffee bar to 'accidentally' bump into some school kid or other. She dug through the pile of case notes that Wesley had dumped on her---Chloe Sullivan: friend of Clark Kent, reporter on the school newspaper and, according to Lex Luthor, local know-it-all extraordinaire. Cordelia decided to award herself what was left of the afternoon off and check out the rest of the town. Surely even Hicksville must have one or two boutiques worth visiting?
A little over an hour later, she'd changed her mind. The dilapidated hulk of a disused cinema dominated the single Main Street, and all the cutesy wooden signs in the world couldn't disguise that the merchandise on display was all last season's. If this town were any more dead, they'd be holding its funeral.
Even walking as slowly as she could, given the chill in the air, she'd reached the outskirts of the town now, a huge showroom for agricultural machinery the last business on Main Street. Nothing beyond here but warehouses, by the looks of it. The afternoon light was already beginning to fade, and the bruise-coloured tint to the clouds suggested that Smallville had yet more rain to throw at her. Cordelia stopped, sleeking down her skirt in the showroom window. She chuckled to herself -- her slate-grey city attire looked incongruous superimposed over the yellow-and-black lines of the tractor displayed in the window.
She froze mid-thought. She was sure that she'd seen something else reflected at the edge of the glass, something dark, moving rapidly. She wheeled round, but there was nothing, the street was completely deserted. 'Get a grip, Cordy,' she muttered to herself. 'Probably just a crow or something.' She shouldered her handbag and walked back in the direction of the town centre, her pace more rapid now. Only ten or fifteen minutes to walk, she estimated. Should beat the rain, and at least the coffee bar will be heated.
Sometimes Cordelia thought that her senses had become sharper after her little birthday gift from the Powers -- though it might just be a side effect of getting rid of the incessant headaches. But she was almost sure that she could hear something else, besides the clickety-clack of her heels on the sidewalk. A quick pattering noise, almost as if someone were following her---but on tiptoes? She scanned the street again. Nothing. Whoever her stalker might be, they were certainly quick. Inhumanly quick. She shivered, abruptly recalling those three missing women. 'Jeez, Cordy. Great timing.' Lex Luthor's theory that Kent might be behind the disappearances sounded more plausible here, in the half-light, when those deep shadows could cover anything---or anyone.
She mentally reviewed the contents of her handbag. Neither the cross-cum-stake nor the bottle of holy water, as much fixtures of her purse these days as her lip-gloss and powder compact, seemed likely to be much use here -- unless Smallville vampires were somehow exempt from the whole no-sunlight-no-reflections clause -- and she'd never tried the little pepper-spray canister she'd picked up suspiciously cheap a few months back at the Pasadena flea-market. Well, she could hardly carry a sword into a public library without attracting attention, could she? Not in a town like Smallville, anyway. (In LA, people would just put it down to a shoot for a men's deodorant ad.) She could always just hit an attacker over the head with her laptop, she supposed -- the damn thing was heavy enough.
She fumbled out her cell phone from her jacket pocket, as she half-walked, half-jogged along, cold-numbed fingers clumsy on the keypad. 'Come on... Answer me, damn you! Where's a hero when you need one?'
Wesley wasn't sure that he'd ever feel anything below his waist again.
He'd been sitting in a hired truck on Hickory Lane since well before dawn, watching what must be the most boring family in all of America as they went about their daily business. So far, the entries in his log revealed that between 06.35 and 07.05, Kent had helped unidentified blond male, forties (assumed to be Kent, Sr; refer photographs 3--7) move their herd for unspecified purpose (assumed to be milking), then at 07.29 he'd dashed out of the farm's sunflower-yellow front porch, navy-and-red backpack slung over his arm, still eating a thick slice of toast, just in time to catch what looked like a school bus (07.31). On-the-spot surveillance of Smallville High School had seemed unwise -- Wesley had no wish to be incarcerated in Smallville jail, accused of paedophila -- so he'd watched the entirely non-demonic comings and goings of the two elder Kents for the rest of the day. His hastily acquired red-and-white plaid shirt itched, he couldn't put on the truck's heater for fear of flattening the battery, and his flask of hot tea had run out several hours ago.
Still, it was the duty of a manager to take the least pleasant assignments, and sitting here was certainly less dangerous than their usual round of case-work. He wondered how the other two were getting on. Gunn had seemed his usual ebullient self, joking that even in the plaid shirt, he'd still stand out a mile in Whitesville, but he imagined that Cordelia had been cursing him all day. Smallville was hardly her scene, her eyes had glazed over the moment the Luthor limo had come to rest outside the Fairview Inn. (It didn't help that the hotel was on the edge of town, and backed onto what appeared to be a cowshed.) For Wesley, the flat countryside, with its dark soil and huge open fields, had initially brought back pleasant memories of the Fens, where he'd spent his university days -- cutting chapel on Sundays, riding his rickety bike down single-track lanes and across drainage ditches for fifty miles at a time, with nothing but a flask of tea, some tinned-salmon sandwiches and Frith's grimoire for company. Somehow, though, he'd forgotten about the glacial winter winds, and those weeks when the rain never seemed to stop.
The porch door opened, and Mrs Kent (he thought it was her, the light was a little poor by now) unloaded a bag of trash. Just about summed up the day, Wesley thought. There was nothing to be found here. Kent was just a normal school kid. Luthor just had control issues. And too much money. Wesley wanted to start the truck, drive round to Luthor Manor and tell Luthor's immaculately tailored person -- well, something -- but he reminded himself of the Hyperion's electricity bill, Connor's college fund -- damn it, his own health plan. He let the ignition keys fall from his hand. He could cope with half an hour more.
He suddenly realised that the odd tingling sensation in his right thigh, which he'd put down to incipient hypothermia, was actually his cell phone ringing. Belatedly, he recalled that he'd set it to 'vibrate' that morning, to avoid drawing attention to his location. He extracted the phone, the movement sending waves of cramps down his right side. 'Damn.' Too late. He was trying to remember how to reset the phone to a normal ringing tone when it started to vibrate again.
'Hello? Wesley? There's something, like, really weird about that meteorite rock!' Fred's words bubbled out like a freshly opened bottle of Evian. 'They're getting high frequency nucleoside substitutions in the Ames Salmonella assay plus severe chromosomal aberrations in Chinese hamster ovary cells.'
'Fred, slow down.' Wesley grabbed his notebook from the passenger seat, rubbed his hands together in a futile attempt to kick-start his circulation again. His fingers were almost too numb to hold the pen. 'What's this about Chinese hamsters?'
'The meteorite is highly mutagenic after long-term exposure,' Fred spelled out patiently. 'But the really weird thing is -- at 25 milligrams daily, it causes overgrowth in 70% of the invertebrate species they tested.'
'You mean giant earthworms, that kind of thing?' Interesting, but hardly relevant to the investigation. 'What about humans?'
'In adult humans Dr Hamilton -- he's the author of the report -- speculates meteorite exposure might cause cancer -- they didn't test that, of course -- well, leastways if they did, it didn't make it to the report, I guess.'
'Even all Mr Luthor's millions couldn't buy approval to make those types of test, surely.' Privately, Wesley wondered whether he was just being naive. He sighed. Luthor's money had made a difference to whether Angel Investigations had taken his case, after all.
'And those poor babies... They're coming out acephalic or bicephalic or just all kind of googly...'
'What? Well, I think I got the googly part, but...'
'No headed or two headed---' Fred's voice wavered, and Wesley guessed that she was choking back tears. 'Mice and kittens and lambs. It had photographs... To think of Connor maybe coming out all googly---'
'Connor's ok, isn't he?'
'Oh, yes, Connor's fine.' The sparkle was back in her voice. 'Angel put the sample into some 15th century lead casket that was lying around in one of the kitchen cupboards, I think it had Weetabix in it, and shut it in the top of the weapons cabinet. The meteorite sample, not the Weetabix, I mean. We found an old ice-cream tub for the Weetabix...'
'Did you get a chance to investigate the rock's effect on other demons?' asked Wesley, attempting to steer the conversation back to the case before hypothermia took over. 'I mean, before Angel confiscated your sample?'
'Well, Lorne could only come up with seven different demon species this morning -- he said most of his friends don't really start to feel human till mid-afternoon.' She lowered her voice. 'I think it's, you know, a drinking thing, not a demon thing---But there was nothing.'
'You mean it's only Lorne that the meteorite affects---and Kent, of course. Now that's strange...'
'Right! I couldn't find anything in any of your reference books about demonic reactions to electromagnetic radiation -- which is odd when you think about it, 'cos you'd have thought it would be a really important area... But we don't have the equipment to do a proper bandwidth analysis here -- you'd need a broad-spectrum, high-sensitivity spectroscope, one of those big old chunky ones they used to have in my old UCLA lab, but they're like thousands of dollars, not the kind of thing you can patch up with an empty Fairy liquid bottle and a few bits of string and, anyway, there wouldn't be anywhere suitable to put them in the Hyperion---' Fred interrupted herself. 'Sorry, Wesley.'
'It's ok. It's only natural that you would miss all that.'
'According to the report, it's this ultra-high-frequency electromagnetic wave that's emitted in pulses -- it's kind of really erratic, but the report couldn't trace any pattern, so I reanalysed some of their data, tried all sorts of cross-correlations with data I downloaded from the NCDC meteorological satellites and the Galileo Project and a couple of other places I ran across, and then it was just staring me in the face, there's this clear negative correlation with sunspot activity -- the correlation coefficient's totally off the scale. I can't think why Dr Hamilton missed it, though, it's just so obvious...'
Wesley felt totally lost. 'Um, Fred, that's very interesting, but what do you think the implications might be?'
'If the meteorite effects are linked with the cycles of this Earth's sun---'
'You're saying that the meteorite affects Lorne because he's from a non-Earth dimension, so Kent is likely to originate from a different dimension? Ah, I see... We could start looking for evidence of previous portal activity in Smallville, I suppose.'
'Not necessarily, it's, like, a solar effect, not a dimensional one, it would just have to be somewhere with a different type of sun...'
'You're saying Kent could be from a different solar system?'
Fred sighed contentedly. 'I'd say that was the most likely hypothesis, yes---Though of course we can't entirely rule out the other dimension thing,' she said, a note of worry creeping back into her voice. 'Best to be on the safe side where there might be portals just waiting to jump out on you.'
'Hi there.' Cordelia breathed out. She'd never been so happy to hear Gunn's voice---well, apart from the last four thousand or so times he'd saved her skin.
'You sure took your time to answer!' she said.
'How's it going, Cordy?' Gunn enquired. 'Lemme guess, bored with library duty already. Books never were your strong suit -- more with the sandals, if I know our Cordelia.'
Tempted though Cordelia was to remind him of the not-one-but-four prestigious schools who'd accepted her (she still carried the Duke acceptance letter in her wallet), perhaps now wasn't the time. 'Get that big axe of yours over here!' she said.
'Sure thing -- keep your hair on.'
'You're a fine one to talk! And I've got a perfect right to be frazzled -- think I've just picked myself up a stalker. Visions of ending up Miss Disappearo Gal Number Four really not appealing right now.' It would be ironic, in a B-movie sort of way, to be saved from near-death experience by direct intervention from the PTB themselves, only to be murdered by Psycho Farm Kid in Smallville, of all places.
'Where are you? I'm guessing, not the library? Unless your stalker guy is heavily into back issues of the *Farmer's Almanac*, or something.'
'Corner of Main Street and...' She peered into the gloom, searching for the street sign. '...Ellison's, heading into town.'
Cordelia could hear rustling in the background, Gunn unfolding a street plan, she hoped -- if he was unwrapping a take-out, she'd kill him. If Psycho Farm Kid didn't kill her first, of course.
'Ellison's?' he queried. 'I'm not finding an Ellison's. Sure you've got the name right?'
'That's what the sign says, and I'm standing right by it.' Come on, Gunn, not got all day. 'Might be on the north-west end of town? I dunno, aren't you supposed to be the one with the map? Seems like the closest Hicksville gets to a commercial district.'
'OK, got it! Just a coupla blocks from here. Hold tight, be with you in five.'
Gliding silently, seeking the deepest shadows. Hunt beginning. Victim chosen, separated from the pack. (Heavy footsteps resounding, volume so loud it edges into pain. Thunder of breaths. Rapid patter of heartbeat.) Oozing between dark crannies, body squashed up against the surface. (Scent of sweat overwhelming, sweet.)
Every move narrowing the distance, closer, closer.
Soon it would be close enough.
'Missing women mystery -- police foiled.'
No, too Inquisitor. Chloe Sullivan scratched out the line, her notepad rested on a convenient lamp post.
'Concern for missing women heightens.'
Too dull. At this rate, she'd never get this week's lead article finished. Since Clark had gone all Mr Virtuous on her, she'd had to settle for milking her other contact on the story -- her father. Dad had hardly seemed to recall Terri Hampshire at all (she'd only been in what he still insisted on calling his 'typing pool' for, like, eighteen months). He'd finally come up with a colourless eulogy, almost word-for-word identical to the one he'd given the Ledger, all 'efficiency' and 'dedication to LuthorCorp', as if the woman's personality had drained out of her the moment she'd walked though the plant gates. Damn it, she could have written better herself in a tenth the time, without ever having even met the woman.
Chloe stuffed the notepad back into her bag, and pushed open the door of the Beanery -- her thought processes clearly required a major injection of caffeine. As usual on a Friday, at this early hour, the place was nearly empty -- everyone was at either sports practice or one of the after-school clubs. In fact, apart from the waitress, who was taking advantage of the lull to stack cups on top of the Gaggia machine, there was just one other customer, a young woman whose charcoal suit, iMac and digital camera all screamed Metropolis.
Thoughts of her article were instantly submerged. A stranger. In Smallville? A good reporter always seizes the moment -- there must be a story here somewhere. At the very least, Chloe thought, she'd get some practice in interviewing techniques with someone who wasn't either best friend or blood relative.
The woman got up and headed for the counter. She ordered a cappuccino, eyed the pastries on the stand but didn't order one, then wandered across to examine the rack of newspapers. When she picked up last week's copy of the Torch, Chloe decided it was time to make her move. She approached the counter, picked up a couple of straws of sugar that she didn't want, and opened with a casual, 'Good call on the cakes. They don't usually bring out the fresh ones till the crowds arrive.' (Nice move. Make her think you're a total sugar freak. Very cool.) But the woman turned towards her anyway, and her smile looked more friendly than condescending. 'Chloe Sullivan. Editor of the Torch ... uh, that paper you're holding. You don't look to be from around here? I'm guessing Metropolis? Friend of Lex Luthor's?' (You're babbling Chloe, give the woman chance to get a word in.)
'Wrong on both counts,' the woman said. 'Actually, I'm from LA, and I've never had the privilege of meeting Mr Luthor.' There was a slight downwards flicker in the woman's eyes as she repeated his name. 'Kelly Gray,' she added.
'So, what brings you to Smallville?' Chloe asked. 'I don't suppose you're interested in the barn sale tomorrow.'
'I work for the LA Times.'
'Wow! You're a real reporter!' At Kelly's broad smile, Chloe realised she must have actually said the words aloud. (First rule of interviewing, never blurt out the first thing that enters your head.)
'It's not like we're an endangered species or anything.'
'Of course not.' Chloe attempted to calm down, regain control of the conversation. 'We just don't get that many around here -- except for the Ledger office, I suppose, but that hardly counts.'
'From the stuff I picked up in the Ledger back issues this morning, I'm surprised you're not besieged with us---This is one weird town.'
Chloe rolled her eyes. 'Tell me about it.'
'Can I get you anything?' Kelly added.
'Thanks. I'll go for an espresso.'
A few minutes later, Chloe was actually settling down at a table opposite a real live reporter, on a real live paper -- the LA Times' circulation was almost as high as the Daily Planet's. She put on her most professional look and started, 'So, where did you study journalism, Kelly?'
'Huh?' Kelly coughed, as if her cappuccino had gone down the wrong way.
'I said, which school did you study journalism at?' Chloe repeated. 'I'm hoping to get onto the Met U course---University of Metropolis, that is -- they claim almost eighty percent of their journalism graduates get jobs in the media industry within six months, though they're a bit cagey about publishing the actual breakdown---which of course could mean that they're counting all those people who just get to lick envelopes and proof the small ads...'
'I, uh, didn't go to any college,' Kelly admitted, as soon as Chloe paused for breath. 'Got accepted by a few, but...' She sighed. 'Family problems, you know how it is?'
'How come the reporter job, then?' (Way to go, Chloe, piss off the first proper journalist you meet.) 'If you don't mind my asking?' she added hastily.
'Luck really. Got a job as an office junior, then just worked my way up. You wanna know my secret?' Chloe nodded. Kelly leaned across the table and whispered earnestly, 'Always make terrible coffee. That way they'll be forced to give you something more interesting to do.'
A hand on her shoulder interrupted Chloe's fit of giggles. 'You guys sound to be having far too much fun for a Friday afternoon. Mind if I join you?' (Damn you, Clark. I never thought you'd be unwelcome, but...)
'Sure,' she said. 'Kelly, this is Clark Kent. Clark, Kelly Gray, of the LA Times.' Clark's surprise she expected; bizarrely, however, Kelly looked almost equally startled. Frightened, even.
Very deliberately, she turned back to Kelly. 'So, you never said why the trip to our humble town?'
'Actually, I'm investigating the disappearances of three women from around here,' explained Kelly. 'My editor has this theory they might be linked with a serial killer in LA a few years back.'
'Well, you've certainly come to the right place then. You know Clark was the one who found Terri Hampshire's body?'
'Chloe...' pleaded Clark.
'Cla-ark...' she mimicked. (If you must interrupt you could at least be some use.)
'You know Deputy Watts warned me not to pass on any details, especially not to...' His voice trailed off, then he added in a whisper, 'You know... especially not to reporters.'
'Details?' repeated Kelly. 'You mean there's some information the police aren't releasing?'
'I really shouldn't---'
'Friends hardly count, do they, Kelly?' Clark was so cute when he was desperate, but Chloe wasn't about to let him off easily now. 'It's not like you've taken some solemn oath or anything.'
'We'll be really discreet,' promised Kelly.
Clark sighed. He must know he could never be a match for two determined female reporters. 'When I found the body, it was all wrapped up in something.'
'Like a sheet?' Kelly questioned.
'Not really... But the weirdest thing---' Clark stopped; he almost looked as if he was about to throw up. 'The body, it was sort of ...' He paused again, glanced round the empty Beanery, lowered his voice. 'All sort of dried up.'
Air sour here in the human territory, grating against the spiracles, ground frigid beneath the pads. She'd be glad to get this hunt over.
Prey very close now, multiple images all coming into focus. (Bigger than the other ones, juicy looking, outer carapace dark.) She reared up on her hind legs, forelegs beating the air for balance. Only maybe twelve lengths away.
Leaving the shadows behind, caution unnecessary now, she skittered towards it. Ten lengths, eight, six...
Wesley was surrounded by a sea of cows.
They streamed across the road ahead of him, while the more curious ones detoured round the back of his truck like an eddy current. Wesley amused himself -- between bouts of drumming on the steering wheel -- in classifying their various shades of brown, from Assam just the way the Fitzwilliam Museum caf used to serve it, through rich tea biscuit, to the speckled foam of Cordelia's favourite mocha cappuccino.
A quick glance at his watch informed him that he'd been stuck here, just half a mile down the lane from the Kents' farm, for almost five minutes now. He slid across to the passenger side, wound down the window, stuck his head out. Still no end visible.
Cordelia could well have been over-reacting, Wesley reassured himself. Her source of information hadn't exactly been reliable. There was probably no immediate danger. After all, if the worst came to the worst, Gunn could handle himself in a fight, couldn't he?
Four lengths, three, two...
In one bound she was on top of her prey, mandibles buried between its segments. Doubled up, fluid bubbling from a deep rent in her abdomen---this one had sharp claws! She bent, nipped at it, waited a few breaths. All struggles ceased.
She wrapped its limbs haphazardly with loops of her toughest, thickest silk, wincing as the movements lanced fire through her gut, then dragged the package -- slowly, painfully -- back into the darkness.
Wesley slewed to a stop opposite the coffee bar, beeped the horn. 'Thank God,' he breathed, as a grey-suited Cordelia emerged at a jog trot. She looked irate. At least she hadn't taken it into her head to try to rescue Gunn alone and unarmed -- it was impossible to fault the girl's bravery, particularly when members of her 'family' were threatened, but sometimes her actions were distinctly lacking in what one might term forward planning.
She clambered into the truck beside him, slammed the door. 'Jeez, Wes, what kept you!'
'I... uh... got caught in traffic.'
'Well, get going already! Not loving the idea of explaining to Angel and Fred that we let Gunn turn into monster munchies just 'cuz you got stuck in traffic.'
'Where did you last see him?'
'Standing right here, of course! But he was heading back thataway.' Cordelia gestured in the direction that he'd come from. 'Nearly forty minutes ago now,' she added more quietly. 'No answer on his cell -- and, unlike some people we know, that actually means something.'
Wesley attempted to make a rapid U-turn in a vehicle half as wide again as anything he'd ever driven before. He guessed that at least some of her anger stemmed from guilt at having been the one to send Gunn into danger.
'Anyhow, what traffic?' Cordelia added, as the truck lurched over the kerb. 'Closest thing to rush hour this place gets is probably, like, milking time.'
Taking Kent's report at face value, it was an atypical demon that they were dealing with, Wesley thought, as they pulled up at the intersection with Ellison. He couldn't recall encountering one that wrapped and mummified its victims -- preservation for later use in a rejuvenation ceremony, perhaps? He'd have to ask Fred to cross-reference Destry's Compendium of Dark Magicks against the demon population local to Kansas. Wesley handed his companion a hunting knife, surreptitiously wiping it on his jeans to remove crumbs of cheddar from the blade, and retrieved the broadsword from the back of the truck. Of more immediate relevance, the time-honoured hack-and-slash routine appeared to be highly effective across a wide range of demon species.
A few minutes later, he was squatting in a side alley, examining what looked to be a scarf, half-hidden behind a couple of trash cans. He'd just got to his feet, fighting the urge to vomit -- the scrap of yellow cloth proving to be the fly-blown corpse of a ginger tomcat, the stench at close quarters as putrid as a feoral demon -- when an anguished cry erupted from Cordelia's direction. He found her cradling an axe---Gunn's axe, he'd know that home-made weapon anywhere. He wiped the sticky green-yellow fluid from its blade with his sleeve (never going to wear that wretched shirt again, anyway), uncovered a jagged notch.
'Doesn't look to be any blood,' she said. 'Gunn'll be fine---bound to be!' She looked up at him, eyes brimming with unshed tears, daring him to contradict her. 'Probably just dropped it.'
Yet another disaster chalked up to the name of Wyndham-Price. (Father would be so proud.) Wesley tried to pull himself together -- practicality, not sentimentality, was the best course for rescuing Gunn. Pointed down at the drips of slime that decorated the sidewalk. 'Gunn obviously injured his attacker.' (If he was a really good boy and ate up all his brussels and didn't step on any cracks, then Gunn would be unharmed, just around the next corner.)
He unsheathed his sword, Cordelia hefted the axe, and they both turned wordlessly to follow the trail. That proved simple enough for two or three blocks along New Street, the fluid glowing luminous green as it caught the flashlight beam. Wesley was quietly thanking whatever power was responsible for Smallville weather (certainly not one of the more pleasant deities) that the threatened rain shower had yet to materialise, when, without warning, the trail disappeared. They were left standing by a factory building, its crumbling brick fascia and rusty iron-framed windows, largely empty of glass, speaking of decades of disuse. A wooden placard announced 'Creighton's Cannery -- You Grow It, We Can It!' in paint so faded that the original colours could hardly be discerned. True to form, New Street looked to be one of the oldest in the district.
Cordelia voiced their joint thought. 'Now what?'
Wesley played the flashlight over the brickwork, taking care to avoid the windows in case the demon was inside. Nothing obvious, but then would the fluid be so visible against that stained and uneven surface?
'It might have entered through the roof?' he whispered. The corrugated iron was clearly in need of repair.
'Sure, but how do we follow it? It may have escaped your notice, but---not quite got this levitation-on-demand thing working out yet.'
They tiptoed along the front wall, rounded the corner into an alley. A side door stood slightly ajar, its heavy padlock hanging loose. A sign emblazoned with a skull and crossbones warned potential trespassers that the building was structurally unsound. Wesley examined the lock---it had been sheared cleanly in two.
'Jesus,' breathed Cordelia. 'Really not wanting to meet the demon whose teeth can do that to solid steel.' Nevertheless, she placed her right foot against the door -- Wesley had to stifle a laugh at the sight of the strappy gold-and-silver sandal, encasing those perfectly manicured, bronze-painted toenails, striking such a macho pose.
At first Wesley blinked because he could see nothing inside the factory.
Then Wesley blinked because his brain couldn't process what his eyes were telling him.
An immense dark shape, glowing faintly green as the flashlight caught it, running rapidly up an arrangement of chains---the rusting remains of a conveyer belt between the factory levels?
Something white that reflected the light, climbing after the dark shape---like a Jackie Chan movie in fast forward. Something must be wrong with his vision, Wesley thought---he could have sworn it had been---a man? In a white tee-shirt?
The white shape -- whatever it was -- emerged first. Swarmed down the conveyer belt, too rapid for the eye to follow. Stopped for a second at the bottom -- it was one-handedly carrying a bulky bundle, wrapped snugly in coils of rope. It deposited its cargo carefully next to a huge metal vat in the far corner, snapped the ropes in a single burst, and disappeared back up the conveyer belt.
'Charles!' exclaimed Cordelia. She took a couple of steps forward---and several things happened in rapid succession.
There was a sharp crack, and shards of planks rained down on their heads.
Something landed heavily just in front of Cordelia.
Something else landed heavily just in front of Wesley.
When the sawdust settled, Wesley found himself face to face with---Clark Kent?
It was unclear how long the two might have stared at each other -- the apparently uninjured teenager clenching and unclenching his fists -- if they hadn't been interrupted by a scream from Cordelia. Both wheeled round to discover she was facing---a spider? The size of... well... a truck?
'Get saying your prayers, you great ugly lump!' Cordelia yelled, and took a swipe at its side. The axe just bounced off.
Wesley leapt forward, slashed at the thing's eyes with the broadsword -- that always worked in the movies. What the movies failed to point out was that this spider had more eyes than he could readily count -- extinguishing one or two merely caused the thing to hiss, holding its ground.
'Run, Cordy!' he shouted, hacking at the nearest leg. His efforts had about as much effect as they might have on a steel girder. 'I'll try to hold it off!'
'Don't be---more of---an ass---than comes---naturally!' she grunted between axe strokes. 'There's no way---you're stopping this---on your own!'
As if in agreement, the creature reared up above their heads, swaying in a fashion that would probably have looked menacing---if it hadn't been so bloody menacing when it simply stood still. Wesley took a deep breath, pushed up his glasses and wiped the dust from his forehead. (He'd always thought that when you were about to die, your past life flashed before your eyes, or perhaps even your future---but he seemed doomed to leave this world worrying about the fact that the Hyperion's electricity bill would never get paid now.)
'Cordelia, get out of here. That's an order.'
Grimly, Wesley raised his sword again---
---only to watch as Kent punched the beast so hard it reeled back several yards, then picked it up by one foreleg and hurled it against the wall. The thud resounded round and round the empty space of the cannery.
'And here was I thinking vampire slayers were always girls,' said Cordelia. 'You think the Council's finally caught up to the Equal Opportunities Act?'
'They are.' Wesley watched breathlessly as the spider picked itself up, scuttled up the wall, one leg dragging, and disappeared through a hole into the upper level. He felt little inclination to try and track it tonight.
Instead, he turned towards the teenager standing frozen in the flashlight beam, splinters still clinging to his hair. 'Thank you for saving our lives.' Wesley held out his hand. 'You must be Clark Kent. Wesley Wyndham-Price.'
The boy looked at Wesley as if he were facing a firing squad. He backed away slowly, then bolted, leaving only a rush of air like the passage of an intercity train.
If Cordelia had realised she was going to be spending so much of her time in hospitals, she'd have made sure her parents had invested serious money in her health plan. Between assorted vampire attacks, the odd impaling, some serious Vocah mojo and, lately, enough CAT scans, investigative biopsies and cognitive function tests to make her hair fall out, she was sure she must be a health insurer's nightmare. This time, she'd only needed treatment for a minor abrasion on her forehead -- thank the Powers it hadn't needed stitches, another scar would have killed her acting career like a dose of herpes. (Get real kiddo, what acting career? You haven't had so much as a hint of an audition for months now, not even for a soap flakes commercial.)
Actually, an investment in whatever company published Cosmo or Elle might have been even more in line, given how many hours she'd spent wearing out their pages sitting in hospital corridors and anonymous waiting rooms, or by miscellaneous bedsides. That girl with the sliver of glass embedded in her neck, who just went on bleeding and bleeding. Wesley, when he'd kept on popping his stitches after he'd taken that zombie cop's bullet. And now, of course, all those routine check-ups on Connor's not-so-routine babyhood. At least neither Angel nor Lorne made a habit of hanging out in A&E.
She couldn't remember sitting by Gunn's bedside before.
Smallville Medical Center was little different from St Matthew's Hospital back in LA. Ghastly orange plastic chairs -- check. All-pervading smell of polish and industrial-strength disinfectant -- check. Mixture of boredom and panic, hope and fear -- check. Well, actually, she'd rollercoastered through so many emotions so rapidly over the past hours that she felt disconnected, as if she'd used up her ability to feel anything besides numb.
She'd monitored progress, as evening wore into night, through Wesley's face. The droop of failure in his mouth when Gunn's prostrate and sweating body didn't respond to the paramedics' resuscitation. The hope transparent in his eyes when the A&E team had hooked him up to a drip. The way the colour had drained from his cheeks when they'd talked about airlifting Gunn to the Tox Unit at the Metropolis University Hospital. The determined set to his chin as he'd signed the financial liability form as Gunn's employer. The worry lines round his eyes dissolving when Gunn had been pronounced out of immediate danger.
And now, well after midnight, his quiet little chuckle as Gunn opened his eyes.
And suddenly she realised, as the tears trickled down her face, that she hadn't used up her ability to feel after all. 'Hey, Charles,' she said. 'You're---'
'---Not dead,' said Gunn.
'Yeah.' She reached across and gripped his hand. 'I guess that's about the long and short of it.'
'So what's new? Charles Gunn don't kill easy.'
'Getting cocky already?' said Wesley. 'You should have seen yourself a few hours ago.'
'What happened? Last I know, some fuckin' great Shelob's pouncin' on my back.'
'Shelob?---Oh, I get it!' she said. 'Hadn't pegged you as a Tolkien fan?'
'Hey, you saying black guys don't read?'
'It's just y'know, hobbits and elves and stuff? Next thing we know you'll be liking---' She cast around for the most improbable thing possible. '---Ballet!'
'Now there's something you just aint ever gonna see!' His laugh rapidly turned into a choking cough.
'Sshh. Easy there.' Cordelia held a glass of water to his lips. 'Laughing strictly off the menu till you've been conscious, like, at least twenty minutes.'
'So which of you guys do I owe my hide to this time?'
Cordelia and Wesley looked at each other. 'Actually neither of us.'
THE STILL POINT IN THE TURNING WORLD
Once Lex had dreamed about angels.
Back then, he'd had a picture of an angel above his bed. It was an original. A hand-painted, full-length portrait of the Warrior Angel. A strange visitor from another planet sent to Earth to protect the weak---how had that woman put it? To help the hopeless.
In his dreams, Lex was the angel. The warrior. The hero.
In the picture, Warrior Angel's bald head stared straight at you, like some First World War recruiting poster, his fist stilled forever in the act of smashing through a wall, 'KER-POW!!!' in 48 point Helvetica overlaid on the brickwork.
Lex smiled. His ambitions were rather more literate now.
The poster had been a gift from his mother. His twelfth birthday. Lex remembered ripping off the Japanese tissue paper, lavender threaded with silver, then gazing in silent awe at the contents. Grinning when he'd noticed that this Warrior Angel's eyes were steel blue, not brown like in the comic. His mother had hugged him tight against the bump they'd promised would soon be his little brother, Pammie had chuckled, and even his father had smiled.
His thirteenth birthday had been different, of course. First baby brother, then mother had died, Pamela took her newly acquired LuthorCorp stock to the Mediterranean, and his father never smiled that way again.
He sighed, glanced across at the clock on his desk. 2.43 am. If he let his thoughts rattle along that particular track now, he'd never get any sleep.
Lex had never dreamed of being the damsel in distress.
INTO THE WOODS
Clark had lived this day a thousand times before.
It was almost a shock that the sky beyond the window was that egg-shell blue usually reserved for Mondays or test days, not Saturdays, that the sun was shining and the sparrows were fighting over peanuts at the bird-feeder hanging by the front porch. A perfect January morning.
In his dreams there'd always been thunder and lightning---or at least torrential rain.
Last night it had rained. Afterwards he'd run and run, water plastering the hair against his brow, dripping into his eyes, streaming down the back of his shirt. He wasn't quite sure where he'd got to -- geography had never been his strongest subject. Wanted to feel tired but couldn't. Wanted to feel cold but couldn't.
*Crashing through the cannery floor. Must have been fifty feet, maybe more. (Any normal person would have been injured.) Landing in front of that man with the silly name and the English accent. Who'd somehow recognised him. And (oh shit) that woman. Kelly. The journalist.*
Didn't matter how far he ran, he still remembered.
*Stopping outside the mansion on the way back, the rain by then just an intermittent drizzle. Light flooding from the stained-glass windows in the south wing. The library. Lex must have still been working.*
'What's up, Clark?' His mother materialised behind him in the kitchen, ruffled his hair. 'You've hardly touched your cereal. Is everything all right at school?'
'I'm ok, Mom.' He forced a smile, pushed away the cereal bowl. (If only he'd just got a detention like any normal fifteen year old.) 'Guess I must just've grown out of liking honey loops.'
'Kent men don't grow out of liking honey loops -- they're still Jon's favourite. You haven't fallen out with Chloe again, have you?'
'No!' He started to refill his glass from the jug of orange juice on the kitchen table. 'Nothing's wrong.'
'We interrupt our breakfast show to bring you breaking news...' His mother reached across and turned up the radio. 'Concern for teenager Gary Loeb, missing since last night, heightens after his satchel was found abandoned this morning.'
Orange stain spreading across the blue-and-white chequered cloth. (His fault. All his fault.)
'A ripped corduroy jacket identified as belonging to the teenager was discovered in the early hours of this morning, leading police to focus from the first on the possibility of abduction. Gary was last seen leaving Smallville High chess club at approximately seven fifteen yesterday. Anyone with information about the teenager's movements is urged to come forward immediately. Police suspect that thirteen-year-old Gary may be the latest in a series of disappearances of Smallville residents. The body of twenty-three year old Terri Hamp---' Clark racked the volume back down, as the bulletin reiterated facts they both knew by heart.
'Oh God!' his mother breathed. She sank down into a chair, pressed her hand over her mouth. 'Doug and Judy Loeb must be frantic!---Wasn't Gary in the astronomy club with you?'
Clark nodded. (He always sat in the back row, his blond head bowed. Clark had thought he wasn't very interested in the club lectures, then realised he was just very shy. He'd invited him over to the Fortress once, to play with the telescope, but Gary'd never come.)
He gestured towards the juice running over the table. 'I'll just get something to...'
Standing at the sink, he stared out across the yard, passing the dishcloth from hand to hand, its damp coolness somehow calming. (Mom, I rescued someone in front of a journalist from LA.) The sparrows had disappeared, one of the barn tabbies must be on patrol. (Mom, two people found out my secret yesterday.) When he looked down again, the cloth was in pale-blue shreds. He shoved his hands deep into the pockets of his jeans.
'Mom...' he started. 'It's a spider. A giant spider. Like, the size of the Ford tractor.'
'What do you mean? What's---'
'All the disappearances.' He turned round to face her, his back still pressed against the sink. 'I fought it last night. At the old cannery.'
'You killed it? Oh Clark, that's great.'
'No! It escaped. I can't get too close to it, I feel faint, y'know, like I did around Earl? Think it must be full of meteorite. And I can't track it. It's really really fast, and it doesn't seem to show up on my X-ray vision. Think it's because arachnids have a chitin exoskeleton, there's no calcification, so it's not as dense as mammalian bone.' His mother's bemused stare stopped his babbling. 'Sorry, Mom, Mrs Henderson's really into spiders. When we did them in biology last term she brought in this tank crawling with harvesters from her garden, got us to dissect them.'
'So what exactly happened then, last night?'
'I... I just rescued someone.'
'Oh---?' The look of hope on her face was unbearable.
'Not Gary. Didn't recognise him. I don't think he's from round here.'
'Is he ok?'
'I think so. I, uh, didn't really hang around to find out.'
'That's not like you, Clark,' his mother chided. 'Hadn't you better go and check up at the hospital?'
'I'm sure he'll be fine, Mom.' He could hear the whining note in his voice, knew his mother could hear it too. 'There were some friends of his there.'
Clark crossed back to the table opposite her, fingered his backpack slung over the chair. 'Look---is it ok if I don't come with you to the market this morning? I need to try and find the spider again. Hopefully stop it this time. Before it gets anyone else.'
'Course it's ok, Clark. It's not like we've got a lot for the stall today, just those winter lettuces. I'll explain to Jonathan. Just---' She tilted her head back to look him in the face. 'Be careful.'
'I'm always careful, Mom.' (Yeah, right.)
He was halfway through the porch door when his mother added, 'It's not your fault, Clark. About Gary. You did what you could. You can't be responsible for everything.'
But it was his fault. Everything was his fault.
What he remembered most clearly from last night was just standing there while two people nearly got killed. While the spider escaped.
'If I didn't know better,' Cordelia said, as she strode into his hotel room, 'I'd say that looked like a ... radio? A really old-fashioned one.'
'That might just be because it is a really old-fashioned radio. I picked it up at the general stores in town this morning.'
Wesley surveyed his hardware purchases -- the clunky second-hand radio, a television antenna, now partially dismembered, a pocket compass, a variety of different connector leads and a mini electrical toolkit. He had to admit, they did look rather out of place spread across the rose-pink chenille bedcover, beneath the obligatory gilt-framed reproduction of Monet's 'Wild Poppies'.
'You made it past that place's door?' She sank into the room's single armchair, a garish concoction in pink velour. 'I got put off by the window displays. Can you believe it, they actually had a whole display of thermal underwear! I mean, how "The Waltons" can you get?'
'Really? I hadn't noticed.' Wesley hastily kicked the evidence of one of his other purchases under the bed. The store-owner had assured him that the navy-blue capilene long-johns on special offer were the best buy for repelling the Kansas winter chill, but he'd probably rather endure the weather than the full force of Cordelia's sarcasm.
'So, you gonna tell me what they're all for, or are we gonna play twenty questions? Unless you're just planning on fixing things up so you can listen to the World Service?'
'You disillusion me,' said Wesley. 'I didn't think anyone in this cultural wasteland listened to the BBC World Service.'
'They don't. Got stranded in Delhi airport one time---on the way back from the Seychelles, you moron -- and it was the only damn thing my walkman would pick up.'
'Well, I hate to disappoint you, but I didn't acquire all this with the World Service in mind. I went back to the cannery first thing this morning---I took the tranquilliser gun, in case you were worrying...'
'I wasn't,' she said, then added at his mock hurt expression, 'Well, you're obviously back in one piece aren't you?'
'...To see if our friend was still hiding out there.'
'Which friend, the one with eight legs or the one with two?'
'The, uh, spider.' Wesley wasn't entirely sure which of the two he was most afraid of encountering again. He thought on balance he might settle for the arachnid.
'A few rusty cans, lots of packing cases lined with 1970s copies of the Ledger, fascinating reading---' Wesley broke off when he noticed Cordelia tapping her foot with increasing vigour. 'No, nothing really. Plenty of green slime, but no evidence that the creature had its lair in the cannery. Hence the radio.'
'Can I say a big "Huh?",' she said. 'Really failing to see the "hence" part here.'
'It's one of Fred's more ingenious little ideas---'
His explanation was interrupted by a quiet knock at the door. Cordelia leaped to her feet. 'I'm onto it!'
'It's probably the pot of coffee I ordered forty minutes ago.'
'Not unless coffee round here comes with a side order of super-strength.' Cordelia was backing slowly away from the door, reaching down to the bed, her hand seeking the tranquilliser gun. 'We've got an office full of colleagues back in LA,' she announced, grasping the television antenna and brandishing it in their visitor's face. 'Big strong colleagues, with big shiny broadswords. So don't even think that if you attacked us you'd get away with it, not even for a minute!'
'Come in, Mr Kent,' said Wesley. 'Don't mind my associate, suspicion tends to be an occupational hazard in our line of work.' He hissed at Cordelia, 'Don't worry, if he were coming to eliminate us, do you really think he'd knock?'
Despite his reassuring words, as the dark-haired teenager brushed past Cordelia, Wesley could feel the hairs at the back of his neck lifting, the way they had the first time he'd come face to face with a vampire -- it felt like lifetimes ago now. That incredible degree of strength and speed in the body of an untrained adolescent---his actions had the potential to be both violent and unpredictable. (Faith's insane babble as she'd slashed his chest with the glass splinter. The blankness behind her eyes as she'd ignited the aerosol can in front of his face.) Who could tell what his reaction might be to his abilities being uncovered by two strangers?
In the confines of the hotel room the boy looked even taller, despite his hunched stance. His creamy skin seemed very pale in daylight---unnaturally pale for someone who'd grown up on a farm. (If Fred's theory was right and Kent was from a different solar system, he would certainly embody an interesting argument for the supremacy of the humanoid form.) He stayed close to the door, hands stuffed deep in his jeans pockets, apparently engrossed by the floral pattern of the carpet.
Eventually he looked up at Wesley, his eyes like a lake under a winter sky.
'Clark,' he said, prosaically enough. 'No-one except Principal Kwan ever calls me Mr Kent, and then only when I'm in trouble.' He extracted an oversized hand from his pocket, held it out. 'You're Mr Wyndham-Price.'
Wesley shook it. (Body temperature felt normal.) 'Wesley.' He gestured towards Cordelia, who was still clutching the antenna. 'And this is my colleague, Cordelia Chase. I'd offer you coffee,' he added, trying to inject an air of normality into the conversation, 'But room service at the Fairview appears to be somewhat lacking in the service aspect.'
'That figures.' He turned to Cordelia, his face puzzled. 'I thought you were called Kelly?'
'Huh?---Oh! I get it. Y'know, that was just an alias.'
'So... You're not a journalist from LA, then?' The relief in his voice was obvious.
'No! Yes! Well, big yes to LA, big no to journalism. I'm gonna be the one making the news, not just writing it up.' She dropped the antenna onto the glass-topped dressing table, where it landed next to the soldering iron with an audible clunk. (There goes the security deposit on the room.)
Clark flashed a tentative half smile. 'Didn't look like a great weapon, anyway.'
'So...um... How did you find us?' asked Wesley.
His expression iced over again. 'There's only two hotels in Smallville, and the other one's closed in winter.'
An uneasy silence descended. Wesley's sense of honour was busily demanding that he explain at least some part of what they were really doing in Smallville. Honesty was always the best policy, and all that. (After all, the boy had saved their lives.) His sense of self-preservation was suggesting equally volubly that the less Clark knew about Angel Investigation's current case, the more predictable his actions were likely to be. Cordelia was scrutinising Clark, from his shaggy crew-cut down to his greying store-brand trainers, as if she were evaluating him for some kind of a job. Clark just stood motionless, hands hanging loosely by his side, emotions flowing across his face like autumn leaves in a stream.
'How's your friend?' he asked eventually.
'Gunn will be fine,' replied Wesley. 'They've just kept him in the hospital today for observation.'
'I'll bet he's climbing the walls right about now,' said Cordelia. 'I mean, like, in a boredom sorta way, not a spider sorta way---though y'know, that might come in really handy.'
Clark smiled, a real smile that melted all the raw angles of his face. Clearly being under twenty-one and raised (if not born) in the States was essential to deciphering Cordelia's more bizarre cultural references. (Sometimes with Cordelia Wesley got the distinct impression that he was the one from a different planet.)
'Can you believe this man?' said Cordelia, turning to Clark. (Obviously he'd got the job.) 'He's fluent in five languages so ancient they're only spoken by people in museums---'
'Seven actually,' said Wesley. 'I picked up Coptic and Demotic when I was studying Egyptian...'
'He can list the mating habits of five thousand demons---'
'You know that's essential for determining their likelihood of exhibiting aggressive behaviour.'
'But he doesn't know that Spiderman got his powers from being bitten by a spider?' Wesley couldn't tell whether her incredulity was real or faked. Clark snorted with laughter, quickly put his hand to his mouth.
'You should get some preview tickets to the movie,' she continued. 'Virginia must have some contacts, surely? Take Fred, she'd love it!'
'Uh-hmm. Fascinating as my social life might be, perhaps we ought to...' Wesley's words tailed off as he couldn't quite put his question into words.
'Yeah, if you're not here to kill us---why are you here?' enquired Cordelia. 'Not that it isn't nice to meet you or anything,' she added hastily.
'And not that we aren't grateful for your saving our lives yesterday,' Wesley added.
'That was kind of it, really,' said Clark. 'You're gonna go after that spider, and you're gonna get yourself killed. I can't let that happen. Not again.'
Clark wondered what on earth he was doing here.
He'd planned just to warn them off trying to go after the spider. (And maybe enquire after the guy who'd been knocked out, to satisfy his mother.) But the two were about as easily put off as Chloe when she'd got her terrier teeth into a story.
So now here he was squashed into the back seat of a truck, behind Cordelia (or Kelly, or whatever her real name was), who'd slid in behind the wheel, her pastel pink sweatshirt, jeans and cowboy boots making her look far younger than yesterday's business suit. Wesley was by her side in the passenger seat, still fiddling with the random bits of electrical equipment he'd been taking apart in the hotel earlier -- he claimed they'd somehow enable them to track the spider.
Clark just couldn't figure them out. The axe and the sword yesterday. (He supposed it must be a sword -- he'd never seen anything bigger than a fencing foil outside a museum before.) The casual reference to demons, as if they were something that not only existed outside of Grimm's Fairy Tales, but tended to cause them trouble on a day-to-day basis. (Perhaps he'd misheard?) The way they hadn't quite explained what it was they were doing in Smallville.
And what was that about vampire slayers? He was certain he hadn't misheard that one.
Clark decided a head-on approach might be best. 'So... why are you doing this?' he asked. 'I mean I'm stronger and faster than most people---' After last night, there didn't seem to be much point in hiding the obvious. 'But you're just normal kinda folks.'
'Wesley, normal?' exclaimed Cordelia. 'We're talking some kind of alternate universe here, right?'
'I took a solemn oath when I joined---when I was twenty-one to fight against evil. Even though... things didn't quite work out---'
'You mean when you and the Council---'
'I'm still bound by that mission. And Cordelia... Well---'
'Watch who you're calling abnormal, buster.'
'Cordelia's quite an extraordinary woman.' She blushed, and Wesley looked down at all the electrical stuff spread across the seat. 'Right,' he said briskly, plugging one of the tangle of leads into the truck's cigarette lighter. 'If I've understood Fred's instructions, this should all work now. That girl's a positive demon with electronics.'
'You gonna explain what it does again?' asked Cordelia. ''Cuz I think I lost you right around square zero last time.'
'A demonstration might be simplest. Hold this.' Wesley handed Cordelia the television antenna. Clark suppressed a grin at how silly she'd looked threatening him with it earlier.
Wesley fished around in his jacket pocket, pulled out a small metal container and started to unscrew the lid. 'I scraped up this sample in the cannery this morning.'
A loud static sound suddenly erupted from the radio cradled on Wesley's knee, setting Clark's teeth on edge and making his head ache. It took him a moment to realise it wasn't just the noise.
'It really does affect you, doesn't it?' said Cordelia, her tone mixing sympathy and curiosity in equal measures.
'Oh, I'm sorry.' Wesley replaced the lid, and the static noise disappeared. 'I'd forgotten about that.'
'I'm ok.' Clark rubbed his temple. 'So that's meteor rock, right?' (How could they possibly know it made him sick?)
'Actually it's fluid exuded by the creature,' said Wesley. 'But, yes, we're hypothesising it contains a high concentration of meteorite. Apparently, the rock emits ultra-high-frequency radiation, a little above the range picked up by a standard television aerial.' He grimaced. 'That's "antenna" in your peculiar mutation of the English language. Fred suggested re-spacing the bars on the antenna and putting an extra capacitor across the radio's tuning circuit.' Wesley smiled proudly. 'Looks like it worked.'
'So, you're thinking ... track down giant-mutato-spider using all this stuff?' asked Cordelia. 'We just turn it on, drive around and follow the static noise? That'll be nice and conspicuous. Not to mention---headachy.'
'Fred suggested we take three or four sets of readings around the most probable area. She e-mailed me a program to analyse the results. Hopefully, we can pinpoint the spider's current location -- assuming it's stationary of course.'
'All the disappearances have been evening or night-time,' said Clark. 'It's probably holed up somewhere during the day.'
'That was our hypothesis,' said Wesley. He turned back to Cordelia. 'And the radio's ancient enough to have a proper signal strength monitor -- that's the main reason I bought this particular model -- so we can just turn the volume right down and look at the dial.'
'My head is buying you jelly doughnuts in advance,' said Cordelia. 'With extra sugar sprinkles just the way you like them. So, where do we start?'
Wesley unfolded a Smallville town plan. 'We're at the end of Main Street now? Looks like here will do. Cordelia, if you could just hang that thing out of the window. Clark...' He handed Clark the plan and a little hiker's compass. 'If you could jot down our current grid reference and compass bearing, and then record the readings I give you. Five replicates should be plenty, I think.'
'You want me to write on the back of the plan?'
Cordelia reached down and retrieved a thick black notebook from the floor of the truck. 'Here, why don't you use this,' she said.
Wesley grabbed the notebook from her, turned back to Clark. 'The back of the plan'll be fine.' He stuffed the book into the truck's glove compartment.
'Sure,' he said, extracting a ballpoint from his pocket.
An hour and a half later, they'd progressed from the commercial end of Main Street, to Saunderson Avenue, right behind Frank's auto repair place, and now to Reilly Lane, a mile or so up from the LuthorCorp plant.
Cordelia was clearly getting restless. 'Whoever thought demon-hunting could be quite so yawn-inducing?' she said. 'Not to mention the fact I'm getting a serious case of antenna-holder's elbow here. Can't we just get to the slash-and-kill part already?' She shook out her right arm and sighed heavily. 'Where's a vision when you need one?'
'You have visions?' Clark exclaimed. 'Like of the future and stuff?' (Gravestones spiralling out around him, mile after mile, friend after friend. Rain drenching him, dry papery feel of Cassandra's hand. Alone, all alone.)
'My very own personal hotline to the PTB.'
'The ...uh... P-T-B?'
'The Powers That Be,' she said, as if that explained everything. 'Y'know, the good guys---Leastways, I hope they're the good guys. I'd hate to have got all demony, like, for the wrong side.'
'Most human religions through the ages have taught that there is an immutable moral code that transcends time and space,' said Wesley. 'An absolute sense of good and evil, right and wrong. The Powers could be thought of as a twenty-first century manifestation of that ancient concept. Not exactly good as such, but embodying the concept of goodness.'
'Gee thanks, Wes. That really made me feel better.'
'Anyway, what did you mean, "got all demony"?' Now Clark was really confused -- Cordelia's round brown eyes, chestnut hair and hundred-megawatt smile didn't fit into his concept of a 'demon'. Perhaps they'd only been using the word figuratively earlier? After all, Wesley's 'demon-with-electronics' girlfriend wasn't an actual demon, was she?
'I thought demons had, you know, scales, or something?' he added.
'Oh God---scales?' Hadn't thought of that one!' She rooted around in her handbag, produced a compact and examined her face minutely in the mirror. 'Not even Lex Luthor himself could pay me enough to---' She broke off. 'Not that I know Mr Luthor or anything.'
The pen in Clark's hand snapped in two. (Well, that would certainly explain how two strangers from LA knew so much about the meteor rocks. Knew that they made him sick.)
'Only met him, like, that once in Aspen---skiing, y'know...'
Smears of bright red ink across his palm, like the blood he could no longer shed. (Why someone from LA might be undercover in the Beanery, chatting to Chloe. His best friend. Maybe the tall black guy -- Gunn, that was his name -- had been at the football practice, talking to his other best friend?)
'Couple of years ago now---sure he wouldn't even remember little ol' me...'
That black notebook---Wesley almost snatching it out of Cordelia's hands, then hiding it away. If the two were working for Lex, could that contain their notes? X-raying the book would be wrong -- but then so was paying people to investigate your friends.
Clark leaned against the front seat, focused on, then through, the glove box door. 'Angel Investigations,' he read from the notebook's title page. 'Wyndham-Price. Casebook 11. 6 November 2001 to ---'. So they were private investigators.
He'd trusted Lex. Thought he was a friend. Perhaps it was his destiny to be alone.
He focused further down, through page after page filled with neat handwriting, to where the ribbon nestled against the book's spine. Ignored the slight headache -- he'd never tried to use his X-ray vision this precisely before. It was a lot more difficult than seeing skeletons through barn walls. (Or girls in locker rooms.)
'Telephone conversation (WB, 16.22),' he read. 'Meteorite highly mutagenic. Overgrowth invertebrates.' That would explain the spider. 'Humans: cancer? Demons: affects only---' the word was double underlined, 'Lorne.'
Lorne? That didn't seem to make any sense, so he skipped down to the last comment on the page, where the words were in capitals, treble underlined.
'Conclusion: Kent from a different solar system.'
Score one for Cordelia's great big mouth.
Well, it couldn't have been so bad, could it? Clark hadn't gone all psycho and killed them both, after all. (Though if looks could kill, Wesley's would have dispatched her, quick as a vampire breaking her neck.) And Clark was still here, wasn't he?
Wherever here was.
Blackhurst Plantation, just off route twelve, according to the map. Current location of giant-mutato-spider, if Fred was to be believed. After all their hours of flogging round Smallville like some out-take from *The X-Files*, Wesley's program had come up with a big fat nothing. They'd sat around eating stale sandwiches at the little coffee bar she'd visited yesterday afternoon, the anything-but-comfortable silence broken only by Wesley's incessant cell-phone conversations with Fred, who was reanalysing all their readings against local topographical data -- whatever that was -- on the Cray supercomputers at UCLA. Apparently, she still had friends there, not that she'd ever mentioned them before. (But then she hadn't bothered mentioning her parents, till they'd turned up on the Hyperion's doorstep one day looking for their daughter.) Clark had sifted through the resulting hot-spot line-up, sullenly yet efficiently, and eliminated all but one as known meteor strikes.
And so here they were.
At least the trees weren't that closely spaced. The springy moss underfoot was almost pleasant to walk over, like an Axminster carpet, though she dreaded what its dampness might doing to the soft Italian leather of her boots. (She'd just have to find an excuse to get Angel to buy her another pair -- he certainly owed her for all those hours of baby-sitting, not to mention the lessons in nappy-changing.) Everything here was green, only the shade varied -- the grass-hued moss, the spearmint-coloured flat leaves which Wesley (ever the know-it-all) had said were liverworts, the dingy grey-green lichen plastering the trunks of the conifers, the Fairy-liquid green duckweed floating in the little streams that criss-crossed the whole plantation. Even the light felt green and thick, filtered through all those pine needles in the canopy far above their heads. Like walking on the bottom of the ocean.
And almost as silent.
Clark hadn't said an unnecessary word since her little goof, and Wesley had gone into full demon hunter mode, dart gun at the ready, the moment they'd abandoned the truck back in the clearing, where the dirt track had petered out. The silence was really beginning to get to her. Well, that and the giant-mutato-spider-just-waiting-to-drop-on-their-heads-from-the-next-treetop scenario.
Another stream loomed up, this time rather wider than the ones they'd negotiated earlier. First Wesley, then Clark cleared it easily. (Men shouldn't be allowed to be over six feet tall, it gave them too much of an unfair advantage.) Cordelia stalled on the near bank. Another, slimier, weed was fighting a winning battle against the duckweed, and an unappealing scum coated the water. She shoved the sword she was carrying down into the middle of the stream, then started to swing across, using it for balance.
'Really, Cordelia!' exclaimed Wesley. 'That's a seventeenth-century Arcadian broadsword, not a walking stick.'
Momentarily distracted, her hand wobbled against the sword, and she lost her balance. She was plummeting towards the water, which smelled even less appealing at close range, when suddenly she was pressed into someone's arms -- nose squashed against soft blue-checked cotton, faint acidic tang of manure mingled with the scent of washing powder.
'It's ok,' said Clark. 'I've got you.'
'Thanks.' (Six-foot-tall men did have their uses.) He released her abruptly, as if remembering all of a sudden that they weren't supposed to be friends. She retrieved the sword, which had fallen against the bank. 'Chill out, Wes. It was notched already, remember?'
The trees were closer now, on the far bank, the air murky, stale smelling. The others kept getting ahead as she ducked under branches, progress hampered by the sword. (Didn't they make an easy-carry collapsible version?) Knee-high ferns replaced the moss underfoot, trailing brambles clutched at her ankles, while abundant tresses of lichen decorated the conifer branches, pale against their black.
'Hey guys, maybe we should keep together?' She'd seen all those horror movies where the monster picked off the hunters one at a time, and it always started with the last one in line.
Clark turned and waited for her, as she crawled out from the latest little obstacle course. 'You said you had visions? From---what did you call them? The Powers?' (At least he's talking again. Must be a good sign.)
'Yeah, honest-to-goodness visions of people in trouble, beamed directly to my head courtesy of the celestial TV channel called the PTB.' She grinned up at him. 'Hopefully, now, without the little sideline in do-it-yourself trepanation.' (She'd once looked up a hundred-and-one synonyms for 'splitting headache', when it became obvious they were going to be a major feature of her life.) 'And, like, dying in agony.'
'So... what d'you do with them?'
'Whaddyamean, what do I do with them?' She clambered to her feet, wiping bits of fern, twigs and soil from her jeans. (Yet another pair for the homeless shelter.)
'What do you do with the visions you get?'
'Well, duh! Try to help people of course.' She brushed a piece of lichen out of her hair. 'That's kind of our mission. To help the hopeless.'
'You mean like you tried to help me?'
She glanced away, then down at her hands, not sure what to answer.
'You call it "helping" to investigate innocent people?' Clark continued, his voice a mix of barely controlled anger and heartfelt anguish. 'That's moral, according to your Powers?'
'Uh, not trying to under-sell your pain, or anything, but---' She gestured at the sticky grey threads that coated her hands.
All three looked up. Around them on all sides, the trees dripped with a woolly grey fluff, like the lint from her washer-dryer. It reduced the mid-afternoon brightness to a gloomy twilight. She shivered. Not lichen. Spider's web.
'Looks like we're getting closer,' whispered Wesley, hefting the dart gun. 'I just knew Fred would have found the right location. That girl's---'
'Lemme guess---a demon with computers?' she interrupted. 'Can we get to the point here? Way to go, monster to kill -- you remember the drill?'
'Sorry.' They set off again, bunched together now, close enough to touch. Wesley was slightly ahead, gingerly pushing aside brambles, thinner branches and the occasional trailing cords of spider's silk from their path with his dart gun. Cordelia scanned and rescanned the trees that flanked them on either side, but the swathes of web, like thick smog, obscured all details. She shivered again. (Let's get this over already.) The sword felt heavy in her hand, clumsy -- she wished she could remember the precise moves from Angel's sword-fighting lessons. (Did you thrust and then twist, or twist and then thrust?) But then Gunn's axe had been about as much use as an egg-whisk yesterday.
'Let me explain, Clark.' Wesley's whisper resounded in the still air. 'It's not quite what you might think.' The two men squeezed under the trunk of a fallen pine, a thick coat of spider silk draping it like a dust-cover. 'We run a detective agency in LA---'
'Oh, it's exactly what I think.'
'A supernatural detective agency.' Wesley reached back to help Clark to his feet, but the teenager recoiled. 'Our client---'
'Lex,' breathed Clark. Cordelia had never heard anyone put as much bitterness into a single syllable before.
'I couldn't possibly comment on their name.'
'I really did meet Lex Luthor in Aspen once,' said Cordelia, scrambling after them. 'Y'know he wears this cute little black fur skull-cap on the slopes?' She thought Clark's mouth might have creased up at the corners a little before settling back to a grim line, but it was hard to tell in the gloom.
'Cordelia!' Wesley half-turned to face her, beads of perspiration decorating his forehead and upper lip. 'Now who's getting away from the point?'
He gestured at the sheet of silk in front of them, and she ripped through it delicately with the tip of the sword. (If this spider's web got any denser, they'd be, well, trapped.)
'Our client hired us to investigate... uh... the disappearances in Smallville.' Wesley pushed aside the thick grey-white veil, cautiously stepped through. 'They were worried that you might be behind them.'
Clark laughed. 'And you believed them?'
'Not exactly,' said Wesley, his voice muffled by the web. 'But not everybody who makes a habit of turning up at disaster scenes is the hero.' Clark didn't respond, and Wesley continued in the same harsh whisper, 'Their worries are clearly groundless. All that remains is to tell them so.'
Clark still hung back. 'Why should I believe you?'
'I guess you'll just have to trust us,' said Cordelia.
'Trust you. Yeah right.'
'Look,' said Wesley. 'No---I mean, look!'
Dimly, through the curtain of silk, Cordelia saw his shadowed form sinking down, firing upwards.
'Oh, you mean---' She pushed through behind him.
High above their heads a huge black shape loomed through the grey-white clouds of silk. Wesley hastily reloaded the tranquilliser gun, fired another dart. Clark disappeared, climbing upwards, the rush of air in his wake tearing the web around them into tatters. A shaft of sunlight, blinding bright after the murky near-darkness, illuminated the little clearing where they stood.
'Got it that time, I hope.' Wesley threw aside the gun -- it must be empty -- snatched the sword from her hand.
From high above their heads came a scream. 'Watch out!'
Wesley pushed her sharply away sideways, then lost his own balance and began to fall backwards. Cordelia watched as the dark shape -- highlighted now with horrifying clarity in the sunlight -- broke loose, plummeted straight down---
OUT OF THE WOODS?
Why was it always him who ended up covered in demon slime?
Wesley could cope with the fact that his life had been saved more times than he could count, by vampires, by demons, by assorted school-children, and sometimes just through sheer luck---well, most days he could cope anyway. But if he ever came face to face with the Powers -- that's the question he would put to them.
Today had been one of the sheer luck days. He'd just happened to land on his back between a fallen tree trunk and a large boulder. The arm he'd put out to ward off the ten-tonne specimen of Argiope aurantia just happened to still be clutching Cordelia's broadsword. The sword just happened to connect cleanly with the softer underbelly of the creature. Wesley had opened his eyes -- when it became clear that he wasn't dead -- to total darkness. After a moment during which his brain ran through increasingly alarming possibilities at that ultra-high speed reserved for times of complete helplessness (nightfall---underground lair---optic-nerve damage---hell dimension), the darkness receded rapidly, as if he were travelling backwards at 90 mph out of a tunnel. When his eyes refocused, a figure was standing above him, bright primary colours haloed in sunlight.
Clark held out his hand.
Cordelia's agonised expression had rapidly subsided into mild concern when he'd emerged, without so much as a sprained wrist, coated from head to foot in sticky green-yellow fluid. By the time the paramedics had arrived and the Deputy had finished taking their statements -- rather a long time, Smallville being more punctilious about crime-scene procedures than LA -- concern had evolved into disdain. She'd even refused point-blank to walk through the hotel foyer with him in that state.
So now their truck was pulling up outside the sunflower-yellow farmhouse for the second time---this time to use the Kents' washing machine. (If Cordelia's pleading skills had as much effect on defaulting clients, then Connor's college fund would soon stretch to Ivy League.) Cordelia hadn't let him ride in the cab -- ostensibly in case of damage to the seats, though Wesley thought the musty odour might have unduly influenced her decision. Anyway, Clark couldn't get within ten feet of him without meteorite-induced nausea and migraine. At least he thought it was meteorite induced. While Clark appeared to believe that accidentally dropping a ten-tonne weight onto someone's head was the moral equivalent of taking money to investigate an innocent teenager -- Wesley wasn't so sure -- their current truce extended to distant politeness and no further.
Wesley unlatched the tailgate and jumped out into the yard. In the half-light he couldn't tell whether he owed his soft landing to hay or cow manure, but he was too exhausted to care.
'Stand still,' yelled Cordelia, then something hit his back. It took a moment to realise it was water -- icy-cold water. He turned to find that she was hosing him down from a tap outside the barn. 'It's ok,' she said. 'These boots were ruined anyway.'
A few minutes later, Wesley was dousing his head under the tap. Solzhenitsyn considered spraying prisoners with cold water a classic torture method, he reflected in an attempt to distract himself from the shivers that had taken over where his mid-section used to be. He doubted that California-raised Cordelia had any idea what she was doing. Clark probably did, though he'd probably suffered enough al fresco showers himself that the spectacle evoked little sympathy. (Did aliens even feel extremes of temperature?)
'Leave my family alone!'
Wesley shot upright, barely avoiding cracking his forehead against the pipework, to see someone pointing a rifle at his chest. Blinking the water out of his eyes, he reached into his soggy jacket pocket and replaced his glasses.
'Get away from my son!' She emphasised her words by prodding his chest with the rifle.
Wesley edged away till his back hit the barn wall. He wished he hadn't left the tranquilliser gun in the truck. (After surviving not one, but two attacks by an oversized arachnid in as many days, it would be ironic to perish at the hands of an irate Kansas housewife.)
'Mrs Kent,' he started. His voice sounded steadier than he felt. 'Perhaps I might---'
'Get off my property! Now!'
'It's ok, Mom.' Clark reached out for the weapon. 'They're... cool, I think.' He didn't sound completely convinced.
Mrs Kent's grip on the rifle didn't waver. 'This man sat outside the farm with a camera yesterday for nearly ten hours.'
'Great undercover work, Wes!'
'If you'd just give me a moment to explain, Mrs Kent?'
Mrs Kent ignored both interruptions. 'Is he' -- she prodded Wesley in the chest again -- 'the reason you were so upset this morning, Clark?'
'He's just killed that giant spider,' said Clark. 'It was holed up out in Blackhurst Plantation.'
'Oh.' The rifle wobbled slightly. 'Did you find---'
'No,' said Clark.
'We found three bodies, Mrs Kent,' Wesley said, as gently as he could through a jaw tight-clenched to prevent his teeth chattering. 'The Sheriff's Office is dealing with them.'
Her shoulders sagged. Suddenly she looked ten years older, and much smaller. Clark took the rifle from her unresisting hands, laid it on the ground. She buried her head against her son's shoulder, and he crushed her in his arms.
'I'm sorry,' she said briskly, after a moment or two. She paused, then added, 'Come on in, you must be getting cold.'
They followed her into the cosy-looking kitchen---at least the first glance had looked cosy, before the temperature difference and the water still dripping from his hair reduced Wesley's glasses to opacity. After a few seconds of awkward silence, he introduced the two of them.
'I'll go put some coffee on.' Mrs Kent disappeared round a corner, then poked her head back round. 'Clark, why don't you offer your guests some apple-and-cinnamon pie?'
'Home-made?' asked Wesley, silently blessing the fact that rural Kansas manners appeared to require edible atonement for poking a rifle in one's chest.
'Grown on the premises,' she said, with obvious pride. 'Kent organic produce. Well, the apples at least, I don't know if you can get organic cinnamon.'
'Yummy!' exclaimed Cordelia. 'Extra wormy goodness!' At least she had the courtesy to wait till Mrs Kent had retreated again.
'Don't mind Cordelia,' Wesley said to Clark's back, as he followed his mother. 'She probably thinks apples grow in little apple-sauce tins.' He rubbed his glasses on his sweater, surreptitiously tried to straighten the frame, which appeared to be the one casualty of the earlier action.
A moment later, Clark reappeared. 'Mom says why don't you use the shower? She's going to try and find you some dry clothes.'
In the bathroom, Wesley stripped off his sodden clothes with a sigh of relief -- the musty smell still clung to them, and the long-johns were beginning to chafe. He wished to God he'd never bought the wretched things -- he'd been sweating all day, and now they hoarded the icy tap-water in all the wrong places. He wrapped a towel round his waist, bundled them up and dumped them in the wastebin.
Clark pushed the door open with a perfunctory knock, and bent to retrieve the odiferous heap from the floor. He gestured towards the bin. 'Do you want us to wash these too?'
'If I never saw them again I'd be overjoyed.'
Clark fished out the navy-blue long-johns, shot him a quizzical look from under dark eyelashes.
'Please---don't tell Cordelia.'
'I'll keep your secret if you keep mine,' Clark said with a surprising earnestness. He hung some clothes on the back of the bathroom door. 'Mom said these might fit you.'
Mrs Kent clearly had a sense of humour. The blue jeans and red-and-white plaid arrayed on the hanger were identical to his outfit of yesterday.
Somewhat revived by gallons of near-scalding water, Wesley retraced his steps downstairs, the borrowed shirt uncomfortably tight across his chest -- demon slaying was certainly developing his pectoral muscles. (Though he could have sworn that the Mr Kent, Sr, he recalled from yesterday had been broader across the chest.) At the kitchen table, Clark and Cordelia were engaged in a quick-fire game of anecdote trumps, in between mouthfuls of apple pie.
'We had this guy who froze his dates into human popsicles---'
'I dated a senior who tried to sacrifice me to a giant snake---'
'I kissed a girl who could change shape---'
'My boyfriend made the swim team, he nearly turned fish---'
'Our coach immolated himself in the locker-room---'
'Our principal got eaten by wild dogs. Rumour had it they were ex-students---'
Their chatter tailed off as soon as they saw him -- Wesley felt like a headmaster checking up on library period.
'And y'know, the weirdest thing?' Cordelia stage-whispered in the general direction of her companion's ear. 'I ended up smooching Wes!'
Clark ducked his head in an attempt to hide his grin. (Looked like those two had found common ground, at least.)
'Have some apple pie,' she said aloud, licking her fingers. 'Nothing like some good ol' demon slaying to whet the appetite.' She flushed, and added hastily, 'For food, y'know, not in a Faith kinda way.'
'Faith?' said Clark. 'Is she another one at this "help the hopeless" detective agency of yours?'
'God no,' said Cordelia. 'Vampire slayer, big on the attitude -- and the grunge dress sense -- light on the teamwork. Not to mention---complete psycho.' Wesley was glad that she felt able to be so blas about their experiences with the girl -- though he feared it said more about their experiences since then.
'Ask Wes,' she continued. 'He was her watcher.'
Wesley shuddered. (If you'd been a better watcher, I might have been a more positive role model.)
'I just don't get all this vampire slayer, watcher stuff,' said Clark. He was obviously fascinated despite himself. 'I mean vampires? Weren't they invented by Bram Stoker?'
Wesley pulled up a chair next to Cordelia. 'Stoker is often inaccurately credited with originating the vampire myth,' he explained. 'He merely rewrote Le Fanu, who was himself drawing from centuries-old Germanic legends. But real vampires have walked this earth since before---'
Cordelia tapped him on the shoulder, ostentatiously mimed putting her hand over her mouth.
'I brought the coffee,' said Mrs Kent. She set a tray down on the kitchen table, unloaded blue-striped mugs, milk jug, sugar bowl. There were tear tracks down her cheeks that she hadn't bothered to cover with make-up. 'Your father'll be back in a few minutes, Clark. Do you want to take it into the barn?'
Clark just couldn't figure out what he was supposed to be feeling.
His initial blind shock had rapidly given way to sheer terror, and then to bitter anger. (What right had they to investigate him?) But then his conscience busily nagged him about all those people he'd helped Chloe to investigate for her Wall of Weird -- not all of them had turned out to be Evil Mutants in the end, either.
Anyway, it was hard to stay angry with someone who looked as ridiculous as Wesley had earlier -- manure on his suit-pant hems, greenish slime streaking his glasses and water streaming down from his hair, which was far curlier when wet. And his accent -- it was like something out of those black-and-white Sherlock Holmes movies from the Forties that his Mom put on sometimes when his Dad was away. But he'd never seen anyone stand up to Mom when she was in that mood. Not Dad, not Principal Kwan, not even Lex---
And Cordelia -- it was even harder to stay angry with her. She had Chloe's streetwise edge, her smartness, her sheer toughness -- mixed, he thought, with Lana's instinctive empathy, her emotional bravery. Lana's translucent beauty, too. Well, almost. He didn't think anyone could be quite as beautiful as Lana.
He'd had trouble stifling his laughter at Cordelia's horrified look when his mother had suggested taking their coffees to the barn. Now, curled up on the couch opposite, she reminded him of the first time he'd invited Chloe to the Fortress, way back in eighth grade when she'd just moved from Metropolis -- staring around her, eyes wide, like she expected rats to run over her toes, or bats to fly out of the woodwork. When he'd switched on the lights he'd almost expected her to be surprised, was ready with his tale of how Dad had connected up the barn when they'd installed the new milking machines in the shed next door. But electric light must be so natural to city-folk that neither of them had even noticed.
'So...' Clark started slowly, desperately trying to get everything straight in his head, 'Vampires really exist?' He supposed it wasn't really any more unlikely than shape-shifting teenagers or fire-setting football coaches -- or, for that matter, invulnerable aliens with junior-sized spaceships lurking in their parents' storm cellar. (Had they somehow uncovered his ship?)
'Just like in the movies,' said Cordelia. 'Though they never say how much their breath smells. Or how damn cold they are to sit next to.'
'You sit next to them?' said Clark.
'We work for---I mean with, a vampire,' said Wesley. 'Angel. He has a soul---' He turned to Cordelia on the couch beside him. 'And how do you know what their breath smells like?'
'Oh... you know,' she said, studying her ankles. In this light it was hard to tell whether or not she was blushing. 'Vamp snack-bar experience gratis with every Sunnydale graduation certificate---and, ugh, how could I forget, like, Darla.' She pulled a face. 'I don't suppose dental-care plans were the norm when she was alive -- the first time I mean.'
'We've got the meteor rocks,' said Clark. 'What's Sunnydale's excuse?'
'Hellmouth under the school library,' said Cordelia.
'Hellmouth?' That went well beyond Wall-of-Weird terrain and into the truly freaky.
'La Boca del Infierno.' Wesley got maximum mileage from the rolled 'r'.
Cordelia mock-yawned. 'That's just the Spanish for what I said.'
'It's a portal to one of the major hell dimensions. The mystical energy draws evil creatures of all kinds from all over the world.'
'Kinda like a health spa for evil weirdos,' added Cordelia. 'Highest death rate in the country.'
'Well, actually the highest per-capita mortality rate was recorded by the CDC in Whitechapel, Missouri. The Council investigated -- thought there might be a nest of fledgling Suvolte demons -- but apparently it was something to do with unstable mercury mine-workings leaching...' Cordelia kicked his ankle. 'Sorry, you were saying... Vampires...'
'You said you work with a vampire?' That might explain why they both seemed so totally unfazed by an alien. (After that day back in the fall, that day when he should have died, he'd had nightmares for weeks where Chloe, or Lana, or Lex had run away screaming when he'd told them the truth.)
'Not just any vampire,' said Cordelia. 'Angel's a champion. Like Sir Galahad -- only with a leather overcoat instead of all that armour-and-white-charger-y stuff.' She turned to Wesley. 'Though y'know, some armour might come in really handy the next time the Hyperion gets raided by Lilliputian demons.'
'Lilliad,' corrected Wesley.
'Lilliputian, Lilliad...What's the difference...'
'I suppose you could just stomp on Lilliputian demons,' said Clark.
'Huh?' said Cordelia. 'Oh, I see what you mean.' She spooned some sugar into her coffee mug and took a sip. 'Angel, Buffy... they're both champions.'
'Buffy?' Clark was having trouble keeping track of all these names. 'Is he another vampire?'
'Hell no! She went to high school with me---though, come to think of it, so did Harmony...'
'Buffy's a vampire slayer,' said Wesley. He looked a little uncomfortable, and Clark guessed that whatever this Council they kept mentioning was, they'd sworn him to secrecy. 'In every generation, one young girl is chosen to fight against---'
'...The vampires, the demons and the forces of darkness, yadda yadda yadda. Just 'cuz the Council made you all recite that whole spiel three times before breakfast doesn't mean you have to inflict it on us verbatim!'
'That's not verbatim, I left out the bit about...' Wesley wilted under Cordelia's stare. 'I suppose it's hardly important right now.'
Clark wondered what Chloe would make of their story. Visions from supernatural powers, champions ranged against the forces of darkness, all neat and black-and-white, like the stuff his Mom used to read to him at bedtime when he was a kid. But if the two were delusional, it seemed like a pretty consistent sort of delusion.
And, if everything they said were true...
'Why does it have to be a young girl?' he asked.
'That's just what I was saying last night,' said Cordelia.
'Since the dawn of time, since the First Slayer, it has always been a young girl who is chosen to be a vessel of the Powers,' said Wesley. 'Her purity and innocence form a symbolic antithesis to the corruption, the evil of this world.'
'Purity?' said Cordelia. 'Innocence? Can I say a big "Faith" here?'
'I did say it was symbolic.'
'And here was I thinking that the old men in the Council got their rocks off watching teenage virgins in skimpy tops getting all hot and sweaty. How wrong could I be?'
'Hold on a moment, I'm getting confused here,' said Clark. 'I thought you said there was only one?'
'One in every generation?' said Cordelia. 'The Powers must've lost count. No, we get treated to the old good cop--bad cop routine.'
'I'm guessing... Buffy's the good cop?' (Perhaps their world wasn't so black and white after all.)
'Yeah, whatever you might say about Buffy's dress sense, or that snotty little sister of hers, or her taste in men---'
'I thought you liked Angel...' said Wesley.
'Course I do -- but not in that way.' Cordelia screwed up her nose, took another big slurp of coffee. 'You gotta hand it to Buffy, she saved the world more often than she retouched her roots -- mark of a true champion.'
Cordelia could probably out-bitch cheerleader-from-hell Felice in a head-to-head, but Clark thought there was a real, if reluctant, admiration underlying her words.
'Buffy's a dyed blonde?' Wesley sounded incredulous. 'I thought she was natural.'
'Call yourself a watcher? No wonder the Council sacked you!'
Scratch that bit about Cordelia's instinctive empathy, thought Clark, as the smile slowly seeped off Wesley's face.
Wesley stood up, turned away to face the shelves next to the hatch. The silence stretched out. After a while, he squatted to examine the leather-bound set on the bottom shelf, pulled out a book. ' "Pictorial History of the World in Twelve Volumes",' he read out from the title page, his voice light. He made a show of counting the volumes. 'So what happened to volumes eleven and twelve?' he enquired.
Clark joined Wesley by the bookshelves. 'I've had one every Christmas from my Grandpa Clark since I first learned to read.' He flicked to the last page of the book, where the full set were listed. 'Looks like the Industrial Revolution is the treat in store for next year. Grandpa always says, just because his daughter married a farmer, doesn't mean his grandchildren have to be illiterate.'
'You do know that these are collector's items?' Wesley dusted off the jacket with his sleeve and carefully slotted the book back into place on the shelf. 'You really shouldn't keep them out here, it must be damp in winter.'
'Yeah, that's what Lex said when he first saw them.' He hung his head. (Lex had probably just come round to the Fortress to spy on his so-called 'friend'.)
Wesley straightened up, picked up one of the sets of darts that littered the top shelf, plucked one out of the cork and offered it to Clark. (Was he that easy to read?)
'Hey, you're not gonna throw those things over my head are you?' Cordelia put her mug down on the trunk and scrambled out of their way.
'Don't you trust us, Cordy?' said Wesley. 'The Council didn't fire me for having a poor aim, you know.'
Clark threw first. (Take that Lex.)
Four. (At least he hadn't split the dartboard, like that time when Sean had called him a faggot because he wouldn't try out for the football team. After that, Dad had lined the back of the board with a steel plate from a broken-down hay-baler.)
Wesley flicked his dart into the bull's eye with a deceptively casual air. He handed Clark the third dart. 'Lesson number one, never let your emotions rule you during combat.'
Clark took a deep breath, let all the thoughts drain out of his mind, aimed for the treble twenty. 'Yes!' he said.
'Well done.' Wesley walked over and retrieved the darts. He stared down at the tip of one of them, shrugged and picked up another dart from the shelf. 'Best of three?' he offered.
Clark nodded. 'So the watchers teach the slayers, right?'
Wesley's second dart missed the bull's-eye centre, lodging in the outer ring. (Sounded like the guy needed to listen to his own lectures.) He grimaced. 'That's the theory.'
'Like anyone could teach Faith anything,' said Cordelia. 'That girl was a walking one-finger-salute-to-the-American-Dream before you ever left the mother country, Wes.'
Clark launched his final dart. It landed just outside another treble twenty. 'Unlucky,' he lied.
This time, Wesley's aim was perfect. Clark held out his hand and Wesley shook it. He collapsed back down onto the couch, picked up his coffee mug and drained it.
Clark took a seat next to him. 'So, any tips?'
'You have all the raw power you need---'
'Well, duh,' said Cordelia.
'But your technique's a little, shall we say unpolished? You might find that if you learned a little karate or tae kwon do that you'd be more effective -- not to mention less conspicuous.'
'Also very good for stress relief,' added Cordelia.
'You do karate?' Clark didn't know why he was so surprised; she'd been pretty handy with the axe yesterday, after all.
'Sure thing -- well, tae kwon do.' She sat down on the trunk, wrapped her arms round her knees. 'I figured if I was going to be demon lunch special every other week I'd better learn to rescue myself, just in case Angel's white charger had a flat tyre, or something.'
Clark snorted with laughter at the image.
'Besides, I can't just hang around looking decorative, however well suited I am for that role.' Her face fell. 'Oh God, where's my purse...'
'You look fine, Cordy,' said Wesley.
'I just can't get used to it,' she wailed. 'I mean, I'm supposed to be an actress, and now I need to lather three times a day with deodorant gel to cover up any lingering odour of demon slime?' (So that earlier 'got all demony' comment had somehow been meant literally?)
'Really, Cordelia, you're over-reacting,' Wesley said. 'We need to complete the research, explore all possible avenues, but gradual physical transdemonification---'
'...Is almost unheard of. There hasn't been a case since the eighteenth---' Wesley broke off. 'There may well be no further manifestations, and if there are, your new aspects will almost certainly be related to the visions in some way.'
'You men just can't understand what it's like to wake up every morning in a cold sweat wondering whether I'm gonna have to change my hairstyle to cover up little red horns.'
'Well, at least you don't have to worry about waking up floating,' said Clark.
Cordelia laughed. 'Wanna bet?' she said. 'Good thing my bedsprings are pretty solid, otherwise I'd be in deep water with my landlord---Now *there's* a mental image that I'm gonna wish I never dreamed up.'
'I'm only fifteen, I should be worrying about, I don't know, why the geography teacher's got such a downer on me...' Clark could hear the whining tone in his voice and decided to ignore it. '...Will I make the football squad next season---'
'Where my gonna find shoes the exact shade of my Prom dress...'
'And instead I'm wondering when my next power's going to show up.' Not to mention how many more people were going to die because he screwed up. He sighed, unballed his fists. 'Sometimes I just wish it would all stop.'
'Right with you on that one,' said Cordelia. She grinned and added, 'Though men don't usually have quite the same problem with Prom dresses.'
'My friend Pete's already on at me about who I'm gonna ask to the Spring Formal -- he says it's never too early to consider your options---'
'A wise man,' said Cordelia. 'A popular girl will have her dates organised at least two months in advance, whilst totally reserving her right to change her mind up to the day before---'
'But it doesn't seem fair, when I don't know if I'll ever be able to settle down...' Clark paused, knowing he must be blushing again. '...You know... have a family...'
'Well, Angel and Darla managed it, and they've been dead for, like, 650 years between them,' said Cordelia. 'How hard can it be?'
'Cordelia! All that... stuff...' Wesley leaned forward and hissed in her ear, 'We shouldn't---'
'Trust goes both ways, Wes.' Cordelia turned to Clark. 'Miracle child---bucket-loads of prophecies, heavy on the cryptic---everyone and their lawyer wants to kill him. You know, all the usual. Oh, and don't tell anyone.'
'All the usual?' echoed Wesley. 'Much though I hate to agree with the proud father, Connor could hardly be called "usual". A child of prophecy, a unique birth -- he has a destiny.'
'Problem is, we just don't know what it is.'
Clark could certainly empathise with that. 'An old lady -- she had visions too...' He took a deep breath. 'She told me once ... she said... it was my destiny to help people.'
'And you're not sure whether or not she's right?' said Wesley.
'She never really explained what it meant.'
'Can't you just ask her again?' said Cordelia. 'When it's really important, sometimes the Powers give me another vision.'
'No,' he said. (Buttery sunlight falling on pastel wool, scent of roses, sight stilled forever.) 'Sometimes I'd give anything just to be normal.'
'You know, when I first got the visions, I'd have done anything to get rid of them,' said Cordelia. 'Kiss the warty demon---don't ask, long story -- offer up my hand-painted silk chiffon shawl that's dead-spit for a Laura Mina original till you get real close -- anything. Didn't care who got 'em as long as it wasn't me.' She stood up, walked over to gaze out of the open hatch of the loft. 'Sometimes it feels like the gifts choose you -- you have to accept them, the Powers don't give you any choice, however hard you fight.'
She turned back to face them, her slim figure silhouetted against the rising moon, like some mystical princess. 'And then you find, when the time's right -- you choose the gifts.' (You can fear the future, or you can embrace it.)
'What gifts? She's not offering you free gifts for your story is she, Clark?' Chloe clattered up the stairs from the barn. (Impeccable timing, Chloe.) 'Don't tell her anything!'
Clark leaped to his feet. 'Uh, calm down, Chloe.'
'But she's a fake! I called the LA Times and they've got no records of a reporter called Kelly Gray.'
'It's ok, Chloe.' Clark interposed himself between the two women at slightly more than human speed. 'Honest. We went through all that this morning.'
'You mean you knew she was a fake, and you didn't tell me?' Chloe beat her fists against his chest in frustration. 'Some friend you are!'
'It's been rather a busy day,' said Wesley.
It took almost ten minutes for Chloe to stop throwing accusations around the hay-loft (it would have taken longer, but Wesley seemed to have had a lot of practice at dealing with hysterical women) -- but now Chloe was happily ensconced on the couch with Cordelia, getting an exclusive interview for the Torch on the day's events. From his position by the hatch, only occasional snippets of their conversation reached him---Clark could only pray that Cordelia was sticking to the story of how they'd found the three bodies in Blackhurst Plantation. (Chloe -- thank God -- didn't seem to have overheard anything very much when she'd arrived.)
After several minutes just staring out at the stars in silence, Wesley gestured at the telescope. 'You're interested in astronomy?'
'It's ok, you don't have to...' Clark looked down at his feet. 'I read your case notes.'
Clark glanced over to the other two, still chattering away on the couch, lowered his voice to a whisper. 'How did you find out... that?'
'Let's just say, I don't think you need worry about anyone else finding out by the same method.'
Clark looked up at his companion, but Wesley's expression was as hard to read as Lex's could be sometimes. 'You won't ... tell anyone, will you?'
'Of course we won't,' said Wesley. 'But I think you should. You've got to trust your friends. Your real friends, whoever they are.'
Clark laughed. 'My Dad---Well, let's just say he doesn't exactly share that view.'
'Part of becoming an adult is the realisation that fathers aren't always right. Even the well-meaning ones. Buffy...' Wesley glanced back at Cordelia. 'She was more effective because she shared her secret with her friends. Shared the burden.'
'That wasn't what you said at the time,' said Cordelia.
'A wise man profits by his mistakes---and I didn't think you were listening, Cordy.'
'Think I don't know that little guilty look of yours when you're about to say something you don't want me to overhear?'
'What?' said Chloe. 'What didn't you want us to overhear?' (Not again.)
'Just talking Prom dates.' Clark faked a sheepish grin for Chloe's benefit as the two women joined them round the telescope, submerged himself with a sigh in the feminine babble. (Women, now they really were a different species.)
Later, as his friends -- old and new -- were leaving, he touched Wesley's shoulder. 'Piece of advice about small towns,' he said. 'Never go for the special offers. They're always the stuff that's been hanging round for decades, 'cos no-one in their right mind would dream of buying it full price.'
Lex wasn't surprised by the call from the security guard on the gate, despite the lateness of the hour. He'd promised Wyndham-Price a second instalment of his fee if he could solve the latest Smallville mystery -- so, after the news earlier that evening, he'd half-expected the man to turn up, anxious to bank his earnings.
What did surprise him was how good Wyndham-Price looked in plaid -- it emphasised the muscles in his shoulders that his shapeless suit jacket had concealed.
'I suppose you're here to file your progress report in person?' Lex leaned back in his chair and prepared himself for a prolonged monologue.
'Clark Kent isn't behind the killings, Mr Luthor. The disappearances were caused by a... uh... somewhat atypical specimen of Argiope aurantia -- the Common Garden Spider.'
That figured with the remarks in the medical examiner's reports that Lex had read.
'I think you'll find that it won't be bothering any more young women in your employment,' Wyndham-Price added, with just an edge of sarcasm.
Lex expected something more, but there was nothing -- the man's face a studied blank. He decided to push -- it should be trivial to intimidate a man like Wyndham-Price. 'You've gone to a lot of trouble to report something so simple,' he said, allowing the sarcasm to bleed into his own tones. 'Might I suggest you use the telephone next time?' He got up, walked round the desk, brought his face to within inches of the other man's. 'Or is there something else you wanted to tell me... about Mr Kent, perhaps?'
Wyndham-Price stood very still. 'As I'm sure you know, Mr Luthor, one of my employees is a two-hundred-and-fifty-year-old vampire who could snap my vertebral column in a second---I think you'll find your little dominance games don't quite have the intended effect.'
Lex stepped backwards. (It hardly mattered, the man's very silence spoke volumes about Kent.)
'I came in person because I needed to return a few things to you.' He fished in his shirt pocket, extracted an envelope and handed it to Lex.
Lex didn't need to open it -- the embossed LuthorCorp logo on the flap identified it as the one he'd given to Wyndham-Price just a few days earlier. He drew out his letter-opener -- a scale model of Alexander the Great's sword in solid platinum, one of his father's more useful gifts -- and opened it anyway. The advance cheque.
'I don't understand,' said Lex, though he was beginning to understand rather too well.
'It's simple enough, Mr Luthor -- I'm sure you'll catch on. Angel Investigations can't take your money.' Wyndham-Price placed his briefcase on the desk, took out a couple of tatty brown envelopes. 'I'm afraid Dr Hamilton's report and the meteorite sample are back in the office. I'll arrange to have them couriered back to you tomorrow.'
One of the envelopes had split open, and a photograph slipped out onto the desk. Lex picked it up.
'He is rather ... remarkable, isn't he?' said Wyndham-Price, his tone surprisingly understanding. Sympathetic, even.
Lex crumpled the photograph, let it fall. 'Might I suggest that this would be a good time for you to leave, Mr Wyndham-Price?' he said.
Wyndham-Price snapped his briefcase shut, walked away from the desk without any sign of hurrying. At the library double doors, he turned back. 'If I may advise you, Mr Luthor---the next time someone saves your life and proves refractory to remuneration in cash... give a large donation to disaster relief in Azerbaijan, or the Metropolis Sanctuary for Retired Donkeys, if you prefer.'
Lex snatched up the miniature sword and hurled it after him. It embedded itself in the frame as the door swung shut. He went to the sideboard, poured himself a generous slug of whisky from the decanter, slumped into the desk chair, swirled the golden liquid round the crystal a few times, savouring the smoky aroma, then tossed it back. (He hated misjudging people.)
The chorus was belting out Dies irae, dies illa for the second time (the War Requiem had seemed the most appropriate choice from the paltry selection in the library) and Lex was trekking across for his fifth refill before he noticed the scrumpled paper on the floor. He bent and retrieved the photograph, then had to lean against the desk to steady himself as the sudden movement brought on a wave of nausea. He collapsed in his chair and smoothed out the photograph.
Clark was remarkable.
Hardly the most startling insight to arise from some fusion of twenty-year-old single malt, ancient funeral mass and the impassioned words of a poet who'd died barely older than he was. Didn't make it any less true. Lacrimosa, keened the soprano, Lacrimosa. He smoothed out the shiny paper again and again, trying to obliterate the jagged fold that cut between the eyes.
His very own Warrior Angel.
Lex had left that poster in the master bedroom of his Metropolis flat, like some brightly painted totem pole. A talisman that his exile wouldn't last forever, that eventually he'd pass all the trials his father ordained. That one day he'd return in triumph to the city where he belonged, a hero once more.
He'd tried to be a hero that day at the plant, tried to sacrifice himself to save the kids. He remembered undoing the bullet-proof vest, facing the gun and the crazed man behind it with nothing in between but a layer or two of cloth and his father's lies. If there's one thing that whole fuck-up should have taught him, it was that he just wasn't cut out to be a hero---Oh, and that nothing he could ever do would restore him to his father's favour.
Clark had saved him that day, too. Boy was making quite a habit of it. (At this rate, Lex might even begin to think he was worth saving.)
Lex replaced the ruined photograph in its envelope, stuffed the whole lot back into his Angel Investigations file. Picked up their business card, tapped it against his other hand. Wyndham-Price might have a point. (Lazarus hadn't exactly turned round, winding sheets flapping, and asked Jesus for his certificate to practise in geriatric medicine.)
Lex closed his eyes. Chill fall sky, face of an angel, dripping with river water and smelling of clay. Rather appropriate for a resurrection, really.
Re-opened his eyes. Face still hung there, grey and watery, drowned and pale. And upside down.
In reflection in the glass-topped desk in front of him.
Lex raised his head slowly, to meet the eyes of the all-too-human teenager on the other side of the desk: he looked like a kicked puppy.
'Clark,' he said. He placed the card with its angel-cum-vulture symbol face up on the desk, turned it round to face away from him. Tried to remember what a genuine smile felt like.
If only Clark would forgive him, then perhaps some day Smallville would feel like home.
WOLFRAM & HART (Special Projects Division)
FROM: Lilah Morgan
Lilah picked up her fountain pen and struck out the printed names in the new-look delete-your-own memo form, getting a particularly vicious little thrill from obliterating Gavin Park from the distribution list. Client reference---her secretary could look up the appropriate number from the files in the morning.
Lilah had cursed when she'd been dumped the job of co-ordinating the surveillance of that nobody after he'd entered their client lists last year. It was standard procedure, intended simply to provide background material in case of future contacts with the firm. 'Once a client always a client' was one of Wolfram & Hart's corporate mottos, but while Lilah sympathised with the sentiment, she'd never felt the routine office task was a suitable use of her time. It hadn't been the most interesting job scanning all the reports -- the subject might have taken a few illegal substances, got into a few fights, broken a few state laws -- but Christ, the guy had never even practised any dark magic! (Unlike his father, now he was one of the Metropolis branch's most lucrative clients.)
Not interesting, that is, until this week, when he'd been picked up contacting none other than her favourite LA agency. Sending a team to follow the three Angel Investigations operatives as they visited Hicksville, Kansas, where the subject currently resided, was just a routine precaution. But Lilah couldn't believe her luck when she'd flicked through the reports -- the cell-phone transcripts were particularly juicy.
The Senior Partners were going to love this.
This time she wouldn't repeat any of the mistakes she'd made with that other girl, what was her name, Bryony? Beverley? Something like that.
Maybe this time she'd finally get the penthouse office suite she deserved.
Also, why not join
Level Three, the Smallville all-fic list?