Futura

by Hope


For Wendi and LaT, who encouraged me, Det. William Cole, who always answered my questions, and Philip Levens and Doris Egan, whose characters I manipulated shamelessly to write this story.


Morning came for them when the sun set. Clark backed into the squad room, three cups of coffee strangled in his thick fingers, and a white pastry bag clenched between his teeth. Though his day had just started, he looked like he'd slept in his suit. It was cheap, tight at the shoulders, and his tie had seen better days, but it seemed to fit the Homicide Unit's slightly grey haze.

Every night, Lex fingered through old files, names still written in red in his memory though they'd long been replaced on the board with new ones. Lex didn't fail- some cases just took longer to solve than others. When Clark slid two cups onto his desk, Lex just nodded and turned another page; he never said thank you anymore.

"We're up tonight, right?" Clark peeled the lid off his coffee and drank without hesitation. He'd won bets all the way from academy to the Criminal Investigation Division with his ability to suck down a steaming cup of coffee without wincing once. Back in the Western, Pete would make a show of nuking a cup of coffee until it started to evaporate, gathering as many suckers with disposable income as he could, then standing back and waving his hands like Vanna White while Clark gulped the coffee down to the amazement of all. Eventually, the road show had to end because everybody in the Western had seen the trick, and news traveled fast; all the skill was good for now was winning an occasional shot at The Wharf Rat.

Answering with a nod, Lex stared into a black and white 8X10. Last October, Madison Avenue- a dealer named Wade Mahaney had sold his last bunk greencap half a block from Eutaw Marshburn Elementary School. The picture captured his undignified final repose, one eye open, one eye gone, courtesy of an engine block dropped with great precision from overhead. It seemed that Mahaney's customers were slightly more dissatisfied than most, to put that much effort into killing him.

With another great gulp of coffee, Clark leaned over to get a look at the folder. "Madison again? It's never going down, Lex."

"It'll go down." Lex turned the page, then in a single, smooth motion picked up the phone the moment it started to ring. He had a gift; he could feel bodies fall, he knew when the next case would roll in. Clark was faster, but he'd never managed to answer the phone before Lex could.

"Luthor, Homicide."

-

The Cavalier smelled of old lunches and new smoke. Leaning against the window, Clark tried to hold his cigarette outside, but Lex still cut him a sharp look. Clark rolled the filter between his fingers, taking another quick drag before flipping the ember off. He'd save the rest for later. "You said I could."

"You didn't have to agree so readily." Flipping the turn signal, Lex forced the decrepit, boxy sedan through a narrow alley. At home, he had a classic Porsche Boxter- he could get from Mount Vernon to the Inner Harbor in eight minutes in the Boxter, but for some reason, the department insisted on its detectives using department cars on the clock.

Tucking the quarter cigarette back into the pack, Clark frowned. "I rolled the window down."

"For that, I thank you." His bottle of Ty Nant serving as the stick in this automatic monstrosity, Lex slowed down when he saw bright cherry lights illuminating the street. Gawkers had already crept onto their front steps, and wandered over from other streets to congregate against the yellow police line. A good fifty fine, upstanding citizens of Baltimore, and Lex would bet his Boxter that none of them saw anything. He pulled to a stop behind an ambulance and slid out of the car.

Dogging Lex's steps, Clark buttoned his too-tight jacket and narrowed his eyes. Through the crowd and the uniformed cops trying to keep the crowd back, he could see not one body on the pavement, but two. Irregular halos of blood shimmered around their heads, still wet. Clark lifted the police tape for Lex, then followed him under. He could smell gunpowder as they approached, a ghostly haze of it competing with iron-fresh blood and the slightly eggish scent of grey matter. As crime scenes went, it wasn't terribly unpleasant; the bodies they found inside in the middle of summer, or pulled out of the harbor, on the other hand... Clark winced to himself and stopped at the feet of their first customer of the day. "Anybody know who he is?"

A uniform piped up, tugging his gun belt as he eyed the crowd warily. "Kyle Tippet, thirty six... lived right up there." Pointing with his flashlight, the uniform lit up a porch and scattered spectators like cockroaches.

Lex crouched next to the other body. His notebook open, he hadn't written anything yet. Instead, he stared down the dead, taking in exit wounds and bruises, broken wire-frame glasses and hemp sandals. "And this one?"

This time, the uniform shrugged. "No idea."

"That's helpful, thanks." Clark circled around Tippet as he fished a pen out of his pocket. When he crouched to sketch the scene, the blood rushed to his head, and a wave of nausea washed through him. Squinting down at the body, he shook off the sensation, making it down as too much coffee and not enough breakfast. He pulled the cap off his pen with his teeth and started to sketch. "What happened? Anybody talking?"

Clapping his hands, the uniform smiled. "Well, that's the funny part. We've got six people waiting in cars to tell you everything you ever wanted to know."

"It's a little late in the year for April Fools, isn't it?" His expression smooth and even, Lex let all of his incredulity roll out in his voice. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out latex gloves, snapping them on while waiting for the uniform to continue.

"If I'm lying, I'm dying," the uniform said, standing back up. "The gist of the story so far? Tippet had a visitor, and they got in a fight. The guy left, and a few minutes later, this one shows up. He yells for Tippet to come out, and when he does, he starts plugging shots at windows. Tippet comes out to stop him before he hurts somebody, the guy puts one in his head, then..." The uniform put his index finger to his temple, then mimicked a shot.

Clark and Lex both looked at once. Tippet's assailant stared back sightlessly, both of his hands open and empty. Sharing a quick glance with his partner, Lex stood. "Then where's the gun?"

The uniform shrugged, backing away with his hands held out wide. "That's a real good question, detective. It was gone when we got here."

Frowning, Clark turned shooed a fly away from the corpse's open mouth, then leaned in to examine its face. Harmless came to mind first- he didn't seem like the kind of guy who'd end up cooling in the middle of the street, but twelve years on the job had taught Clark that 'looked like' didn't mean a whole hell of a lot. Pursing his lips, Clark tapped his pen against his notebook and asked, "Do you know where the gun is?"

Tippet, however, had nothing to say.

-

At least four fluorescent lights were trying to die. Clark rubbed his ear, trying to block out the buzzing death rattle overhead as he and Lex walked the long hall toward the morgue. Crime scenes weren't so bad, but Clark didn't like the morgue- chemicals and decomposition tainted the air, the overhead lights ticked incessantly, and the constant sounds of metal- cutting through flesh, or slammed shutcrawled into his head and made it hard to think.

"You know, when I told you guys to bring me something interesting, I didn't know you'd actually do it." Pushing clear plastic lenses onto her forehead, Chloe leaned against the sink wall and smiled when Clark and Lex walked in. "Which begs the question; if I asked for a pastrami and swiss delivered by a Chippendale, would that happen too?"

Taking out his notebook, Lex ceded a cryptic smile. "That depends on what you have for us."

"It's always business with you, Luthor." Chloe laughed and shoved off the counter, her chunky heels clicking on the dingy linoleum. She cast a quick, flirtatious smile at Clark. "Can't you do something about him?"

Shrugging, Clark tried to look helpless. "I'm lucky if I can keep up with him."

"Uh huh." Chloe snapped on the overhead and swung it around, pouring pure, icy light onto Tippet's body. He looked smaller on the slab, and almost artificial dressed only in a Y incision. With a snap, Chloe pulled on gloves, and poked away at points of interest. "No defense wounds, clean entrance and exit, textbook definition of terminal lead poisoning. Pretty healthy too, except..." She trailed off, turning to retrieve a few vials. She held them up to the light, motioning them closer. "Check it out."

Lex dipped down to look through the vials; one darkprobably blood, one light, probably vitreous humors. They didn't seem all that unusual to him, but he squinted and stared harder. "What are we looking for?"

Interrupting Chloe's answer, Clark took a few steps back. Pale, he wiped his mouth and caught the edge of the counter. Ignoring the subtle hint of worry on Lex's face, Clark waved his free hand and said, "Green. There's something green in there, what is it?"

Replacing the tubes, Chloe looked Clark over before answering. "I don't know, but he had it everywhere. Lungs, kidneys, liver, fluids... I'm sending it for analysis, but I don't actually expect to get any results. This is what's interesting, part one." She cut off, turning her attention back to Lex. "I've only seen it once before- Detective Luthor should remember."

"Madison Avenue."

"Exactly. So that's something to think about late at night when you can't sleep." Chloe nodded then rounded the slab to get to its mate nearby. "Interesting part two. Take a look at this." Picking up the dead man's hands, she held them up for inspection.

Brows knitting, Clark traced a few abrasions with the cap of his pen. "Defense wounds? But he was the attacker. We actually have witnesses who say so."

"Oh, he was." Chloe replaced the man's hands then shrugged. "He was defending himself... from himself. I mean, we'll have to wait for tests on the tissue samples to be sure, but the wounds on his wrist are fairly consistent with the nails on his opposite hand. It's like he was trying to keep himself from committing suicide."

-

The car was cramped, but quiet- someplace to think when the squad room got too noisy to bear. Clark stirred the carton of chow mein with his fork, frowning into it. "I don't get the connection."

Rolling chopsticks between his fingers, Lex slipped a bite of sweet and sour chicken into his mouth, and chewed it slowly. His temple pulsed as he chewed, a slight tension across his brow creating his thinking face. There would be an answer, but not until he got around to sharing it. "What happened to you down there?"

"Huh?" Clark shifted in his seat, propping a foot up on the cracked dash. Neon lights cast hazy, lavender shadows across his face, etching the shadows a dusky purple.

"In the morgue, when Sullivan showed us the samples." Another swift dart, and Lex scooped up a bite of rice. He'd spread his handkerchief on his lap, but Clark couldn't remember the last time he actually spilled anything. "What happened?"

Clark shrugged, wrapping more noodles around the plastic fork. He liked the food from Uncle Lee's because it tasted clean. There were at least six Chinese places downtown he'd marked off their dinner list: at China Dragon, he could tell the oil was days old, at Jade Palace, the vegetables carried a regular aftertaste of mold and dirt. Lex really didn't care where they ate- he believed that getting Chinese anywhere but Beijing was a waste of time- so Uncle Lee's it was. "I dunno. I guess I just got a little lightheaded."

"Like you did at Madison Avenue," Lex pointed out, trading his chopsticks for a bottle of water. Though he sounded casual, his eyes had narrowed just a bit, scouring Clark's face for clues.

Shrugging again, Clark stuffed his mouth full and turned his attention to the street. It was after midnight, but the streets weren't deserted. People wandered in and out of Uncle Lee's, and the occasional panhandler waved a sign, 'Why lie, I want a beer,' at them. "It was hot."

"It was October."

Clark shoved his fork into his carton and closed the flaps. "It was Indian Summer." Balancing the carton on the dashboard, Clark rolled down his window and produced his half-smoked cigarette from before. He didn't actually want it- and he'd discovered over Christmas vacation that he could go without them with no problem, but they'd always been good social currency. No smoker would deny another smoker in need; bumming a light started plenty of conversations. "We've got
two up in red, and this is what you're thinking about?"

"You're my partner," Lex said, waiting until Clark put the cigarette in his mouth to move. The same fluid motion to pick up a phone almost before it rang came in handy for flicking unlit cigarettes out of car windows. He answered Clark's scowl with a pointed look. "I'm eating."

Banging the door with his elbow (the only way to get it open,) Clark rolled out onto the pavement and ducked to look back into the window. "That's littering, you know."

"Lighting it is attempted murder." Lex pointed at him with the chopsticks. "Are you going to answer my question or not?"

Clark disappeared, his voice floating up from the ground. "I already did." He popped up again, waving the half-cigarette in Lex's direction before bounding up to the trash can outside Uncle Lee's. And since he was outside anyway, he leaned against the wall and lit another one. Smoked it slowly, too- hopefully, it would give Lex time to find something else to occupy his curiosity

-

"Hey, Kent."

Whitney's voice plucked at Clark's last exposed nerve. It had that lilt to it- taunting and disgusted all at the same time, the one that had driven him crazy in high school. Forcing himself to look up, Clark snapped a hand up and caught the football Whitney had lobbed at him without warning. Turning the pocked ball over in his hands, Clark rubbed it until the worn leather started to smell sweet, skirting the edge of the squad room toward his desk. "What?"

"Got something for you." Spinning his chair around, Whitney snapped his gum and picked up a folder. Without saying anything, he still had that tone, and Clark knew when he reached for the file, he'd pull it away. Certain kinds of people never changed; he suspected that Whitney still wore his letterman jacket on the weekends.

Saving Clark the embarrassment of begging for a file, Lex cut through the squad room and plucked it out of Whitney's hands. "Thanks, Fordman." Lex made gratitude sound like a slap in the face, and it was patently clear he didn't care if Whitney took offense. "From Missing Persons?"

Whitney set his jaw, a muscle pulsing just beneath his ear, but he summoned up a tight smile. Each time he snapped his gum, the muscle jumped again; he looked twitchy and barely contained in his skin. "Yeah. I've been keeping it warm for you, Lex."

Lex returned the smile- his had more teeth, and lasted longer. "You shouldn't have."

"Least I could do," Whitney said, and spun his chair again to leave him facing the clearance board. Sections had been marked off with all their names, narrow columns full of three digit numbers and victims in black and red. "You're bleeding a little bit, thought you could use the help."

The board stood in mute testament, closed cases in black, open cases in red- Lex's column carried a good mix of both, but Whitney's wasn't much better. Mid-summer, and they were already up in the 150s, Pete and Whitney had had the bad luck to pick up three goofballs in a row, lately troubled by an anonymous bowling ball tossed off an interstate overpass. Lex considered the board as he sat. "I can see where you're finding the time."

Grin fading, Whitney jerked his shoulder and rolled his chair back to his desk. "Kiss my ass, Luthor."

Clark threw the football back, and didn't feel all that guilty when it bounced off Whitney's shoulder. Spreading out his hands helplessly, Clark leaned back against his desk. "Sorry Whitney. I guess my aim was off."

Exchanging a quick grin with Clark, Lex opened the folder and murmured low for Clark alone, "That'll show him."

-

"And there's Clark, right in the middle of it," Pete said, sliding a thick-headed glass of Natty Bo across the bar. Morning threatened to spill through the windows, so he'd closed the curtains and locked the door. The general public couldn't have beer until eleven, but they weren't the general public.

Whitney had thrown his battered leather jacket over the back of his stool, curling an arm on the bar and scratching his fingers through dirty blond hair. Restless with an open case on his mind, Clark wandered, his tie hanging loosely as he sat, then stood, reaching across to fiddle with the taps. Only Lex looked like he could belong somewhere else- a corporate boardroom, or in front of a lecture at the university- twelve hours overnight hadn't put a single crease in his suit.

Taking the glass, Clark rubbed his thumb against the foam to thwart it. He hid a smile, protesting mostly because Pete expected him to, it was part of the routine. "I was still in the car."

Pete ignored Clark's clarification. He was telling a story, and he'd tell it the way he wanted to- including all of the details he'd added in the eight years since he and Clark had ridden together in the Western. "Holding out his hands, yelling, 'don't shoot, don't shoot, I'm a cop!'"

"I actually said, 'put the gun down.'" Clark smiled when Lana passed through, folding over thick, canvas money bags. Even though Clark had to admit he and Pete had hired her for being pretty, she was good at running the bar when they were tied up in redballs or ordinary whodunits. With a hundred bars in a four block radius, each of them flashier or dingier than the last, The Waterfront wouldn't ever win any prizes, but Lana rubbed down the paneling once a week, toyed with the menu to add a little variety, and she never stole from the till, which made her pretty -and- ideal.

"I think I remember that," Whitney said, reaching across the bar for a coffee stirrer. Popping it in his mouth, he chewed it thoughtfully, shifting it from one side of his mouth to the other. "Didn't you have to run home and change your pants, Kent?"

Lex covered his coffee cup to keep Pete from pouring anything else in it. "Careful, Fordman. People will wonder why you're so interested."

Without missing a beat, Pete laughed. "Yeah, that's your job, right Lex?"

"He's my partner. Everything about him is my business." Lex gaze trailed over to Clark, for confirmation or denial. He always looked a little too long- he could make the whole squad room squirm as they waited for his gaze to wander somewhere else.

Clark was the only one who didn't bend under it, and now he leaned against the bar, picking over the same rough spot in the wood. He hid a smile, and peered up through the dark line of his brows. "Not everything. Most stuff, though."

"I'm getting out of here before they start feeling each other up." Whitney slid off his stool, and knocked knuckles with his partner.

Stuffing the canvas bags into a larger one, Lana interrupted. "Since you're leaving anyway, would you mind walking me to the bank?"

"I can," Clark said. He stuffed his towel beneath the bar, then started to reknot his tie.

"I've got it, Kent." Whitney offered Lana his elbow. When she took it, the rest of the world receded, and whatever he leaned down to whisper in her ear made her dip her head and laugh.

The door closed, and Pete dissolved into laughter. Clapping Clark on the back, he shoved him out of the way to take his place behind the bar again. "You just got dogged."

Mumbling, Clark shrugged and fixed his attention on the swirl of dust stirred up when Whitney and Lana left. "I was just trying to be polite."

"Take heart, Clark." Lex smoothed a ten onto the bar, and stood to leave. "Fordman only has three moves, and he just wasted one of them on a walk to the bank."

-

Tangled in rough sheets, Clark turned over again and covered his face with the pillow. Drawing in short breaths, he could smell the detergent on the cotton, sharp chemical high notes and a rusty low, probably from the water. Cotton beneath that smelled warm and indistinct; the foam inside the pillow smelled chemical again, but pleasant, like warm oil.

In theory, he wanted to sleep. His arms and legs pressed down with sluggish weight, and gravity sealed his spine against the mattress, but his curtains didn't keep the light out, and smothering himself with the pillow only lead to long, rambling dissections of the scent. The bed creaking under his weight, he rolled on his side and curled an arm beneath his head.

The faucet in the bathroom dripped, and the pipes gurgled whenever someone flushed the toilet. Every sound magnified, Clark squeezes his eyes closed and tried to think about Kansas. He didn't remember it very well; they'd moved when he was five- his mother said he farm had been struggling for a while, and they decided to sell it while the land was still worth something.

When he focused, Clark could remember the taste of spring there- cool winds crossing the creek, and the dark, earthy flavor of newly turned earth. Stretching out his fingers, he felt the memory of soil beneath his hand. Sometimes the ground bit him- his mom said he'd found a piece of broken tractor blade, but that's not how he remembered it. The shape of the old barn only sketched itself in his memories, but the day the ground bit him never faded.

He'd decided to dig a tunnel. He wouldn't have needed to, if somebody hadn't put up a grate over the drainage outlet by the creek. But, they had, and his dad had warned him away from it, so Clark took a spade and got to work a few feet into the corn field. Somebody might stop him if he saw him, so under the cover of whispering stalks, he dug.

The first few inches were easy- mostly just shifting loose dirt from one place to another. A few inches below that, though, and the ground turned to pebbled clay. Each time the spade grated over the tiny rocks, Clark shuddered, but he kept digging. Sometimes, he'd have to stop to scrape the spade clean, but soon he had a pretty impressive hole- big enough for his feet, deep enough to cover his ankles. He guessed if he kept digging at this pace, he'd have a tunnel all the way to the creek by Wednesday- that was the only day of the week he knew, but it always seemed like it would be Wednesday soon.

After testing the depth, Clark laid out on the ground so that he didn't have to reach so far to dig. It was funny, because his mom said he spent all of his time getting dirty, but the clay smelled clean, and just experimentally, he spat on a piece of it and rubbed it on his hand. It foamed a little, and left a red streak that tightened when it dried on his skin. He liked the color, and made a few more marks before remembering he had a job to do.

Scraping away at the clay, he kicked his feet and made the corn stalks shake. The green blades sounded like snakes when they rubbed together, and it was good music to dig by. A few more inches down, he hit a wide patch of stone and started to carve around it. Kick and scrape, he chewed at the grit in his mouth, digging and prying until he could flip the rock over.

That's when the ground bit him- hard. He dropped the spade, and tried to stand up, but it hurt too much. For a second, it was like his hand had fallen asleep and woken up in an instant, that hard, cramping sensation of dead weight and pain, but instead of going away, it sped up his arm, and all over his body. He wanted to cry, he tried to scream for his mommy, but the only thing that came out were little wheezes. Even though it was daytime, everything went all dark, and he remembered thinking he shouldn't sleep in the cornfield.

When he woke up, he was on the couch, and he was hot because his mom and dad were down in his face, shaking him. They were worried; his mom started to cry when he opened his eyes. She said he must have cut his hand on a piece of broken blade and fainted when he saw the blood. Clark tried to explain the way the ground bit him when he turned over the rock, but his dad said he'd had a scare and was confused. Later though, in the bath, Clark peeled up the bandage on his hand. The only red there was a streak of clay.

They moved to Maryland the Wednesday after that, the way Clark remembered it.

-

Before Clark had insinuated himself into the Homicide Unit, in a time Lex liked to refer to as "the peaceful years," Lex tended to work alone. He could dissect a case with a partner, and unless the detective in question happened to be a smoker, the process was efficient and pleasant. Lex knew how to make conversation, laugh at which jokes, ask the right questions, and say vodka gimlet in sixteen languages. His company wasn't the problem; that he never slept and never let a case go was the problem.

Lex put in eighteen hour days because he wanted to, and he took offense at the idea that some cornerboy from Highlandtown could outsmart him. Some cases mattered more than others; some cases didn't matter at all, but they all had to go down. While everyone else carried a respectable seventy one percent clearance rate, Lex usually managed to slide in a few cases from prior years at the last minute, to bring his average up to seventy eight. It still wasn't good enough, and until Clark came along, no one was interested in putting in unpaid overtime to make sure justice was done for an east side smokehound.

After drinks at The Waterfront, and a quick trip home to shower and change, Lex returned to the brick behemoth on Thames Street, and commandeered a desk in Missing Persons. Eventually, someone would call to say that a friend, or a spouse, or a lover left abruptly last night, and never came back. Eventually, someone who would recognize Tippet's shooter would stand next to Lex in the morgue and nod, maybe crying, maybe relieved, and give up his name.

Waiting in Missing Persons would not, however, be wasted time. The Madison case spanned four files, and Lex spread them all out on the desk. He re-read notes in his own handwriting, comparing them to photographs, and comparing photographs to witness statements. Organizing and reorganizing the months old investigation, Lex traced themes from one piece of evidence to the next- Mahaney dealt crack mostly, but a handful of his regular customers had emerged from their haze long enough to share rumors. Some new drug, synthetic, injectable. None of them had tried it, but all of them agreed that whoever shot it up felt invincible.

Fingers twitching, he shuffled the pictures again. The crime scene guy had taken more pictures than usual, just because it was a good trophy case, one to show off over beers after work- a half-headed corpse in an alley, almost as good as the floaters that turned themselves inside out when they popped. Lex shunted the black and white shots to the back and studied the color prints again. Starting at the top left corner, he skimmed his fingers across the picture, as if he could read the shapes beneath them. It helped him isolate the scene without distraction.

On his second pass, he stopped at Mahaney's arm. Tracing the spiked tattoo, Lex rolled his chair into a better pool of light and knitted his brows. It was green, just like the samples Sullivan took out of him during the autopsy. Just like the samples Sullivan took out of Tippet. Flipping the picture over, he noted the tattoo, but kept his questions about the connection off paper. Possibly, Mahaney and Tippet knew each other. Possibly, Tippet had a stockpile of the new synthetic. They could have been partners, or had an intimate dealer-junkie relationship. Just for a second, Lex entertained the possibility that Tippet killed Mahaney over the drugs, then got his own eight months later. If he could prove that, he'd have a very, very good week.

-

Three hours before the alarm was set to go off, Clark woke to someone knocking the door. Probably Dr. Bryce downstairs- he'd fixed the hot water in her apartment three times in the last month, but it kept going out for no reason. The building had its quirks- Mr. Kwan's windows kept swelling shut, Mr. Small's radiator smelled like burning cat hair when he turned it on, but Dr. Bryce's hot water problems beat them all. Clark's best guess was that the pipes from the basement to her bathroom needed to be replaced, but since he wasn't the landlord, or a plumber, all he could do was thump the old boiler until it behaved. Rolling out of bed, Clark pulled on an aging red UMBC gym shirt, and padded through the apartment. " 'M coming."

"Daniel Flecker," Lex said when Clark opened the door. He hovered, waiting for Clark to wave him in before coming inside. Pressing a cup of coffee into Clark's hand, Lex waved a sheet of paper at him. "Forty two years old, married, and until yesterday, he was the president of the Patapsco Environmental Task Force. No record, no history of violence, actively involved in political protest, however..."

Everybody at work joked that Lex never slept, but Clark suspected it was actually true. Already dressed for work, his impeccable tie impeccably knotted, Lex seemed sharp as ever. He folded the pages over his fingers, creasing them quickly as he waited for some sign that Clark was paying attention. Peeling the lid from his coffee, Clark slumped against the wall. "What?"

"According to Flecker's husband, Kyle Tippet came to the office a few days ago. They spoke briefly, and when he left, Mr. Flecker cancelled an appointment. Just one, with Bob Rickman. Sound familiar?"

Clark flipped the coffee lid on a nearby table, and raised the cup to his face to inhale the steam. "No."

"He manufactures pesticide." Lex waited for the lights to go on, continuing when Clark said nothing over the rim of his cup. "It seems Mr. Rickman planned to expand his empire; he wanted the PETF's blessing to build a plant on the Gwynns Falls Watershed. Considering his record with the EPA, the PETF wasn't inclined to give it."

Finally, Clark showed a little life. "What does that have to do with anything, Lex? Flecker killed Tippet, it's down. We're done."

Annoyance arched Lex's brow. "Sullivan said it appeared Flecker didn't want to kill himself."

"People hesitate when they put a gun to their head."

Lex offered Clark the folded pages between two fingers. "He has no motive, Clark; Tippet was on his side. Rickman, on the other hand, stands to lose millions if this plant isn't built."

Unfolding them, Clark frowned. They were blurry photocopies of newspaper clippings, all of them variations of a theme- Rickman Industries victorious after charges are dismissed before trial, civil suits abandoned on the eve of opening arguments. Skimming them, Clark still frowned, and returned to the point Lex had blatantly ignored. "Okay, so he's a jerk, but he's still not our guy."

"Tippet argued with someone before Flecker arrived. The gun Flecker used is missing." Lex reclaimed the photocopies, and tucked them into his pocket.

"Some kid probably picked it up," Clark said around a sip of cooling coffee. The case was down; Tippet's name was already in black- identifying the assailant had been little more than a courtesy. There would be no arrest, no trial, and there was no reason to drag the case out when the temperature was supposed to hit ninety, signaling the start of summer shooting season.

"I think Rickman picked it up. Having a murder weapon traced back to him would put a stumbling block in the path of his march toward industrial supremacy." Lex turned to leave, cutting a sharp glance back. A muscle in his jaw ticked, but his tone remained even and cool. "The man involved himself in every major gun control protest in the last ten years. He didn't own a gun, and I can't fathom him picking one up voluntarily. Go back to sleep, I'll see you tonight."

Groaning, Clark caught the edge of the door. "Give me a minute to get dressed."

-

The one way streets had been designed to improve the flow of traffic, but the design had failed. Downtown at noon smelled of diesel and exhaust, and the slow circulation of wind off the harbor was only reason the streets didn't hang with thick, blue smoke. Lex considered snarled traffic a personal affront, and had done a little designing of his ownpossessed of an encylopedic recall of every alley, gutter, and low sidewalk the Cavalier could mount, he wound his way through unmapped Baltimore to a business park on the southwest side.

So far, Rickman Industries' presence in the city consisted of a mostly-empty office paneled with pictures of sunflowers. Artificial yellow upset all the color in the room, leaving Clark to blink his eyes at the unsettling impression that Lex's liver had failed somewhere between the door and the secretary's desk. The secretary looked just as bilious, the fabricated light casting a greenish pall on her bleached hair, but that didn't stop Lex from tracing her figure with his eyes, or flashing his most charming smile when he asked to see her boss.

The hues suited Bob Rickman, though. A short man, comparatively, with dark hair, he filled up the small office with a grin and the offer of a handshake. Clark didn't like the way his hand felt; Rickman's grasp was firm, but his palm was too hot and he held on too long. "I'm Detective Kent, this is my partner, Detective Luthor. We were wondering if we could ask you a few questions."

"Are you sure about that, detective?"
"Yeah, pretty sure." Clark produced his notebook, a vague sense of suspicion tickling in the back of his head when he saw Rickman's lubricated sales smile falter. It was a weird question to ask, and Clark didn't even have to look over to know Lex thought so, too. "We heard you're building a plant in Gwynns Falls, is that true?"

Leaning against the desk, Rickman waved a hand. "You're interested in pesticide?"

"Not particularly." Lex clicked his pen, then clicked it again, the metallic snap to punctuating the quiet. "But we're interested in your connection to the PETF."

Rickman pressed his hands together, and sighed. "There isn't one, I'm afraid. Not for lack of trying, I made arrangements for a sit down, but it was cancelled."

"And why was that, Mr. Rickman?" Lex had already made up his mind to dislike the man, and he wore his disdain with a cultured air. As prone to slouching as anyone else, his posture was perfect at the moment, smooth head held high just so he could look down his nose at Rickman.

"No idea." The slick smile returned, and Rickman rolled his shoulders in a mockery of self-deprecation. "It happens from time to time in my business. Nobody believes that any good can come out of a pesticide plant." He laughed, straightening up and slipping his hands into his pockets. "Not that they complain when they have tomatoes as big as grapefruits for their sandwiches."

Doodling a lop-sided figure eight on his notepad, Clark looked to Lex. "I like tomatoes."

"I'm not averse to them." Lex nodded; no one else would have seen the slight blink, but it told Clark everything he needed to know.

It always fell to Clark to ask the neutral questions- people responded to his wide-eyed features; they believed him when he asked something innocent meant to trap. Sometimes it annoyed him, but the reaction in the box when he played the bad cop was worth the implicit trust bestowed on him because of his faint, perpetual blush. "Anyway... you might have another chance, did you hear about Mr. Flecker?" He and Lex shook their heads at once, what a shame, both of them watching Rickman's face from oblique angles. "He went a little nuts, shot a neighbor, shot himself."

Rickman's expression didn't change. Eyes flat, his mouth half a twitch away from an oily smile, he pushed concern into his voice. "Is that why you're here?"

Closing his notebook, Lex nodded. "You were in his day planner. We're running through anyone who might have had contact with him before he..."

"Snapped," Clark said, circling a finger next to his temple. "The guy was loony tunes." Smiling brilliantly, he even managed a little laugh to break the tension.

"I guess he did me a favor when he cancelled," Rickman said. He didn't laugh quite as readily as Clark, but he melted back to lean on the desk again, more relaxed. After a little small talk, he shook Clark's hand again and insisted they come back if they had anymore questions. They didn't have enough to ask him about Tippet or the missing gun, but now they had a reason to keep looking.

In the parking lot, Clark scrubbed his hand on his jacket, and admitted, "He's hiding something."

-

More than most cops, Lex enjoyed research. He wore a special kind of joy when he could walk into an interrogation and ask a suspect about his third grade teacher, or that embarrassing personal ad ISO of a bad daddy to punish a naughty baby. Like his geographical short cuts, Lex had more than a few on the Internet, as well, so it rarely took him long to find something useful. Bathed in the flickering glow of monitor-light, Lex wrenched out new information about Bob Rickman with startling speed. In another lifetime, he might have been a hacker, or a programmer; in this one, he just abused Google to speak for the dead.

"That's the third link about a meteor shower," Clark said when Lex skipped it and followed hypertext to an environmentalist conference from 1993. Hovering over Lex's shoulder, Clark tried not to tap his finger on an imaginary mouse. Lex didn't take suggestions on his driving or his surfing.

Scrolling through a minefield of Comic Sans, Lex answered slowly. "It's irrelevant."

Clark sat down, pulling his chair up to the table so he could hide his phantom mouse tapping. "How do you know? You didn't even look."

"It's the stuff of tin foil hats and MUFON meetings, Clark." His voice even and smooth, Lex tore through four more pages, his eyes quicker than using the 'find' feature, and when the Rickman on this page turned out to be Alan, he bounced back to the search engine. "Roswell, the second coming. Thirty years ago, a meteor shower nearly destroyed a farm town in Kansas, and those inclined toward paranoia insist it wasn't a meteor, but a spacecraft."

Snickering a little, Clark watched the cursor swing around the screen, looking for a place to land. "What, no alien autopsy?"

"Not that I'm aware of." Lex sat back and stared at the search results. His gaze traveled up and down, flickering in quick, blue precision.

"Hey, Lex?" With a grin, Clark waited until his partner dragged his attention away before continuing. "How come you know so much about it? Are you hiding a tin foil hat in your locker?"

Instead of returning the smile, Lex hit one of the meteor links, bringing up an archival page of a small town newspaper. Centered beneath a rooster insignia, and a headline screaming DAY OF THE METEORS, a picture of a main street wasted and smoking filled most of the screen. Almost by rote, Lex rolled the picture away, and highlighted a paragraph. Silently, he moved to give Clark a better view.

Just a brief section, it didn't take Clark long to skim it. He paled, amusement melting away. The busy noise of the squad room filled up their quiet, the long hesitation marked with an ancient typewriter's clatter, and the plaintive bleat of ringing telephones. "I thought you said it was an accident."

"It -was- an accident." Smoothing a hand over his bare head, Lex pushed his chair back and stood. "I wasn't supposed to be there that day."

Clark looked at the screen again, all of the names on the wounded list more real to him now. "I'm sorry, Lex. I didn't know." He scrolled the page idly, trying to think of the right joke, or a better sympathy to offer, then stopped suddenly. "Lex. Look."

"There's nothing there I haven't seen before," Lex said, but checked anyway. Two familiar names, past the Greers, the Luthors, and flanking the Summers, rolled to the top of the screen. Kyle Tippet and Bob Rickman. Covering Clark's hand with his own, Lex hit the link on Rickman's name, pursing his lips as the scan of a story about two traveling salesmen caught in the meteor shower slowly loaded.

Turning quickly, Lex grabbed his jacket and started for the door. "Let's go."

-

They didn't need a warrant to search a victim's home, and with dusk settling in, the neighbors had better things to do than to worry about why two strangers were forcing the lock on Kyle Tippet's door. Once inside, they spread out. The rowhouse had a fractal kind of order. Dangerously sharp sculptures lurked in dark corners, ready with coiledwire claws to snatch at them if they strayed too close, and the rooms had been packed full of magazines and books. Old peach crates made up most of the furniture and all of the shelves, and when the murky scent of solvent got to be a little too much, Clark discovered that Tippet had nailed the windows shut.

From the look of things, Tippet didn't let air in, and he didn't go out much, either. Lex drew his fingers across the kitchen table, then rubbed strangely soft metal shavings between them. The dining room, instead of a table and chairs, boasted stacks of scrap metal and a welding rig. Reflected in a welding helmet's eyepiece, Lex opened the cabinets lining the wall one by one. Wrenches and hammers rattled together, and a hacksaw blade hummed when it brushed against the door.

"I lived in Kansas for a while," Clark said, crouching down to sort through magazines and mail by the front door. "My parents had a farm outside Wichita. Organic produce."

Opening one of the tool box drawers, Lex raised his voice enough to be heard. "Why did they leave?"

Clark shrugged, shaking a magazine and catching the subscription cards that fell out. "They were losing money, I guess. I don't know, I was only five."

"My father had fertilizer plants there." Lex closed the drawer and started on the one below it. This one held screws and nails, the one beneath it, angles and brackets, the strange tools of Tippet's undefined trade.

Their voices carried on the high plaster walls, echoing their conversation and the rattle of hardware. Clark put the magazine aside, and moved to the next stack. "How'd you end up here?"

"After my father died at Metropolis General, my mother decided that I should be treated at Johns Hopkins." He opened, then closed, three more drawers in succession, then stood up and paced into the next room. "We spent a lot of time with specialists. It made sense to stay, especially after she sold the business. It was a good decision, it turned out she needed the doctors more than I did."

Sorting through old Popular Mechanics, Clark tasted dust and the memory of clinically chemical hospital halls. "Her heart, right? That's where my dad went. They took good care of him."

Lex tipped books on the ersatz shelves, running his nail along the pages of each before replacing them. "It's a good hospital." Spreading his palm, he pushed a stack of books back into place. They rattled the unsteady crates, and the whisper of something heavy and paper slipped to the floor. With a graceful sweep, Lex picked it up and turned it over. The envelope bore a leaping blue marlin, and a return address for Case Closed Investigations. Shaking out the contents, Lex didn't look over, but murmured, "Clark."

Popular Mechanics abandoned, Clark watched over Lex's shoulder as Lex shifted through unlabelled, unexplained photographs. Marked with the blurry grain and focus of a telephoto lens, the pictures captured random moments in the life of Bob Rickman. In one, he walked out of the PETF office; in another, he stood on a street corner, talking on his cell phone. Different ties marked the passage of time, and Lex turned slowly to catch Clark's gaze. "Curiouser and curiouser."

Clark nodded. "Tell me about it, Alice."

-

After dark, the harbor bobbed with mystery haze, and the plaintive call of tug boats to shore. Sea salt lingered on the breeze, sullied by exhaust and ripe fish. The pier uneven beneath their feet, Lex waved his penlight around, and Clark just squinted a little, to read the names on the yachts and crabbers bobbing hollowly at their dolphins. A couple argued inside the Isabel Scott, and slow, smarmy 70s music spilled out of the Vancouver Owen. Past them, and a long row of boats silent and dark, a man loaded boxes of groceries onto a small cruiser. Tall, his pale hair catching hints of light, he stopped when Clark and Lex approached, and leaned against the gunwale. "You guys lost?"

Skimming across the stern to reveal a blue marlin, Lex raised the light and shook his head. "Not at all." He tucked the flashlight away, then stretched out a hand. "I'm Detective Luthor, this is my partner, Detective Kent."

The man smirked, snapping a mouthful of gum as he shook Lex's hand. "Mike Kellerman, but you probably knew that, huh?" He leaned against the gunwale, looking them over with a critical eye. "Homicide?"

"As a matter of fact..." Lex picked up one of the boxes, canned goods rattling around in it as he handed it over. "We'd hoped you could answer a few questions for us."

Laughing, Mike slid the box onto deck and held out his hands for the next. He wore a casual, easy air, laced with a distinct edge. "Maybe something like, 'Why'd Kyle Tippet hire you?' Do you want the bullshit dog and pony show about client confidentiality?"

"Not really," Clark said, hefting a box of produce without passing it along. "But we'll listen to it if we have to."

Mike shrugged. "He said the guy was bad news; he wanted to know what he was up to in Baltimore." Leaning over to take the box from Clark, whether he wanted to give it up or not, Mike examined Clark's face. "How old are you, anyway? I mean, I was young when I started in Homicide, but you look like you should still be playing cops and robbers on a playground somewhere."

A ripple passed between Lex and Clark, the ghost of murder police past whispering over their skin. Clark leaned his head back. "You knew we'd be here."

"Yeah." Shoving the boxes together with his foot, Mike grinned again. Faint lines crinkled around his eyes, and he snapped his gum again. "So are we done? The guy paid in cash, didn't talk much, and now you know everything I know."

Lex rolled a stray can into his hand and sat it on the gunwale, lingering for a moment with his surgical stare. After a well-placed silence that yielded nothing more than an amused nod, Lex shook his head. "That's all we needed. Thank you for your time."

"Hey, thank you for loading my groceries." Mike pulled a ball cap from his back pocket and jammed it on his head. He tipped it with a jaunty nod before turning away. His smirk lingered in his voice, heavy with wisdom and experience, but mostly amusement. "Oh, and good luck with the why, Detective Luthor. From what I remember, you're gonna need it."

-

"Maybe Rickman talked him into it because he didn't want to be stalked." Sitting on the hood of the Cavalier, Clark flicked ashes toward the water and took another drag. A slight breeze fingered through his hair and carried the smoke away when he exhaled. The city behind them, just a distant concept removed from the craggy promontory, they could throw their thoughts into the air here, to see if they connected.

"You're suggesting Rickman is so persuasive he could convince a total stranger to commit murder for him," Lex said, ticking off one finger, then bending back the next, "And convince him to kill himself afterwards?

Clark shrugged. "Do you have anything better?"

Lex pondered the choppy horizon and the silver moonlight dancing on the waves. He had speculation, he had suspicion, he had two crime scenes with similar, but unidentified, elements, but he didn't have any evidence. He shifted his hands in his pockets and leaned back against the car. "I admit, I don't."

Tucking a hand behind his head, Clark curled back to lay the hood, hooking his heels into the bumper for balance. Warmth seeped through from the engine block, and he closed his eyes. With Lex's contemplative voice as a lullaby, he could sleep here, blanketed by the sky. "I think you should let it go, Lex."

"That's your professional opinion?" The wind tugged at Lex's tie, and he didn't bother to smooth it back into place.

Orange ember glowing, Clark took another drag and exhaled slowly. "That's my professional opinion."

-

In his dreams, Clark could fly. He'd stand on the edge of the rooftop playground, spreading his arms out to the water, then fall. It only took a second for motion to catch, a force warm and yellow like the sun, lifting him up to soar over the city. In his dreams, he prevented cases that had never gone down in his waking hours. With strong arms, he plucked little girls in red raincoats from burned out rowhouses; with broad hands, he caught bullets before they met flesh. Names disappeared from the board, leaving it pristine white; no one ever stained the snow with blood, and fire engines never washed pools of it from black asphalt streets.

When he woke, he walked like everyone else; down the stairs to the basement because Mr. Jenkins had blown the circuits again. In his bleary state, Clark replaced the fuse and pondered buying the building one day. Maybe if The Waterfront ever showed a major profit, or if Lex left him anything in his will. Smacking dry lips, Clark scratched his chest as he stumbled upstairs, the trailing edge of the flying dream still vivid in his mind. If he could get back to bed and block out the light, he might be able to fall back into it. Rounding the corner, Clark stopped when he saw Lex at his door, his hand still poised to knock.

All black and white today in a severe suit, Lex dropped his hand and smiled. "There you are."

"What did you find this time?" Clark brushed past him as he walked into the apartment. No formality this morning, he just left it open with the expectation that Lex would follow him inside.

"Wonderful things," Lex said, then picked up a picture of Clark with his parents. He studied it, still smiling. "That's what Howard Carter said after his first glimpse into King Tutankhamun's tomb. No one expected him to find it; contemporaries believed the Boy King to be a myth, and Carter's patrons were beginning to believe it, too. 1922 was his to be his last season in the Valley of the Kings, but Carter pressed on, and was rewarded with the largest cache of undisturbed antiquities ever found in Egypt."

Clark dressed while Lex waxed historical, another ill-fitting suit, this time in fading blue. He didn't even try to convince himself that he'd get to go back to bed; lectures on the cradle of civilization always meant that a break in a case. "The tomb was cursed, though."

Replacing the picture, Lex walked a small circle. "Curses only work if you believe in them, Clark."

His father would have said "Better safe than sorry," but Clark replied with a neutral grunt and stepped into his shoes. As he followed Lex to the Boxter, he hoped that this would be the last day of Bob Rickman show and tell, because Lex was getting lax. They didn't have a lot of rules, but they both understood that Clark provided coffee in the squad room, and Lex brought coffee when he felt like working in the middle of the day. Breaking the Java Accord was a serious matter, and they'd be having a detailed summit about it when Lex finally shoveled some dirt over Tippet's grave.

For now, Clark was content to get out of the small car and stretch his legs. Parking behind a warehouse, Lex didn't button his jacket when he got out. Keys went into his pocket, and he strode toward the door with purpose. The building itself was unremarkable: bare wood and aluminum, and a wide concrete floor, all in various shades of grey. Though devoid of machinery, the place still smelled of gasoline and oil, and the barren expanse amplified their footsteps, reverberating down to nothing when they stopped in the middle.

"Okay..." Clark smiled quizzically, trailing his gaze along plain walls in search of these alleged wonderful things. "I don't get it."

Lex pulled out a lighter, nodding toward the battered pack of cigarettes in Clark's front pocket. "You'll want one. What I have for you is better than sex."

Something tightened in Clark's stomach, unease that swept through him to weight his fingers and fix him in place. Patting the pocket, Clark half-smiled and stalled. "Uh, people don't usually smoke until after."

"Good point." Lighting it, the flame wavered, and Lex spread his hand casually. The lighter fell, hitting concrete with an almost musical note. In an instant, fire rolled across the floor in ever widening circles, leaping up to consume the support beams. Pleased, Lex slipped his hands into his pockets and smiled up at Clark. "Was it good for you?"

Throat tightening, Clark whipped around, looking for a clear path through the flames. Adrenaline surged, his heart pounding furiously in his ears, his muscles turned liquid and slick for speed. His thoughts spun wildly, he'd get them both out, and then he'd kick Lex's -ass-; no, he'd get them both out, slap Lex down in the box to figure out what the hell just happened, and -then- he'd kick his ass. Deciding the fire was thinnest at the west, Clark turned to grab Lex, and something knocked him down.

An ache vibrated through his ribs, and he braced a hand to stand. When he looked up, he saw nothing but the blunt nose of a Glock, and Lex's arm extended behind it. Blinded by a flash, two more, three more shots slammed into his chest. The acrid flavor of gunpowder coated his tongue, four points of heat stinging on his skin. Stunned, he couldn't catch his breath, and he slumped back onto cool concrete. Nothing made sense anymore, because it seemed like he'd been shot- like his partner shot him, but he wasn't bleeding, and Lex would never do that. Swallowing the sour taste in the back of his throat, Clark groaned and tried to stand.

"Persistence is -my- speciality, Clark." Lex emptied the clip, staggering back and dropping the gun on the last shot. Clipped by a ricochet, he clutched his forehead, and swayed closer to the growing fire. Blood dripped between his fingers, staining his skin and falling on Clark's.

Moving fast, Clark grabbed Lex's belt before he fell back; balancing him and using him for leverage at once. He struggled to his feet, colors and shapes leaping up in surreal half-visions of bones, then flesh. He couldn't think anymore, he just moved- grabbing Lex and cutting through the fire to fresh air and bright sunlight.

Through the door, Clark stumbled and they both fell. Lex skidded across the gravel and came to a rest besides the silver-blue Porsche. Scrambling to him, Clark dipped his head to listen for Lex's breath- he wouldn't have the chance to kick his ass if he died, but Lex exhaled thin and reedy warm, then mumbled, "'Believe in curses now?"

-

A good homicide detective has a gift for interrogation, and a keen sense of observation. The job requires a tolerance for tedium, and a willingness to pick through garbage, animate and inanimate, on a daily basis, but more important than all of that, a good homicide detective has the ability to write reports so dry and factual that no one feels the need to read them too closely, or more than once.

According to the single page added to the Tippet binder, an anonymous informant lured the investigating officers to a remote location, and set the building on fire for reasons unknown. In an attempt to escape the blaze, Detective Luthor fired several shots to open a locked door, sustaining a minor ricochet injury. The anonymous informant remains unidentified. Since Tippet had gone up in black, no one really noticed the amended file, though Arson had taken to sending them nastygrams scrawled on pink 'while you were out' memos.

Alone, Clark and Lex discussed it only once. Over coffee in Clark's apartment, with the windows thrown open to catch the breeze from the harbor, Lex said he remembered walking into Rickman Industries that morning, then waking up in a bed at Maryland Shock Trauma. He explained his broken theories about the synthetic drug connection, from Mahaney to Tippet to Rickman; it remained a possibility, he said, that the drug came in an aerosolized form, and that Rickman had used it to convince Flecker to kill Tippet; or perhaps Tippet dealt it, Rickman wanted it, and the environmentalist in the hemp sandals got caught in the middle. Neither Tippet nor Rickman were around to ask; Rickman had unexpectedly vacated his lease and left town.

Clark had written the report, and reassured Lex that the only thing Lex shot that day was a locked door.. well, and himself, but who was counting? He started a new pot of coffee, and asked Lex how he thought the Os would do this year. Clark didn't think much of it when Lex excused himself to go to the bathroom, though it surprised him when Lex decided to leave, claiming headache while rubbing the butterfly bandage above his brow.

"I'll see you tonight," Lex said, and for a second, Clark would have sworn his eyes grazed over his red UMBC tshirt. Later, after he closed the dark curtains to try to get some sleep, he found one of his suits folded on the bed. He frowned and picked it up, ready to toss it into the pile of clothing growing in mounds around his closet door, when he caught a hint of gunpowder on it. Scorched bullet holes decorated the jacket, straight through to the shirt, and Clark sat heavily on the edge of the bed. Slipping his fingers through the holes, he realized he hadn't heard the gurgling toilet flush before Lex left.

He stuffed the suit under his bed, then tapped a cigarette out of the pack. Lighting it, he rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling, at the swirling dragons rising from the ember, then reached for the phone. He remembered the day the earth bit him, the day he discovered he couldn't bleed, and reached for the phone. He wasn't five anymore, and he had developed a gift for interrogation. The phone only rang once, and when the woman answered, he said, "I need to talk to you, mom."

Across town, Lex sat down with Chloe Sullivan, another cup of coffee, and a theory about a drug that didn't just make people -feel- invincible.



If you enjoyed this story, please send feedback to Hope

Also, why not join Level Three, the Smallville all-fic list?



Back

Level Three Records Room