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Quality Time

by P L Nunn


Chapter nine


Time ceased to have meaning. No light. No sound. The only measure, each hard won breath, and even that became animal impulse, survival instinct cutting in when the higher mental functions succumbed to sheer, overwhelming horror.

He would die under the earth. Slow, if they left him the air, from dehydration or starvation - - fast if they came back and deprived him of that source - - and then the creatures that fed on things trapped beneath the dirt would come and begin their slow consumption of his body.

What if they came before? He could feel tiny movement against his skin - - a hundred little pin point touches and he screamed, silent, echoless strain that made his throat raw, the panic within as black and fathomless as the black heaviness of the earth surrounding him.

His thoughts looped on the notion, endless variations of the same horrifying end. Waking, Poe-esque nightmares that drew shadows like magpies, feeding on fear.

The world moved, and broke the looping decent.

The dirt shifted around him, loosening, no longer surrounding him like a cast that refused movement. He clamped down on the airline, and twisted reflexively, snatching at the chance of voluntary movement after God knew how long of being denied it. The earth gathered under him, pushing him up like an offering and if he'd had hands free he would have franticly aided the expulsion.

Fingers latched onto him, dragging him out, and he leaned into the warmth of a body, drawing in lungfuls of unfettered air, blinking dirt out of his eyes, vision hazy and full of sparking lights. Someone was mumbling - - babbling nonsense words between gasping sobs - - it might have been him.

The arms around him moved to his back, and his wrists were free. One less constraint and it felt like he could breath again - - like just enough of the black weight was lifted so he could think.

He pushed away, needing distance, needing to breath with nothing but air around him, but fingers clamped around his wrists, drawing his hands in front of him.

Lex blinked up, sight swimming back into focus, registering the last face he wanted to see leering down at him. Rule. Who was trying to recuff Lex's wrists in front of him.

The notion was intolerable, and Lex cried out, sheer panic giving him the strength to throw a larger man off balance. If his ankles hadn't been taped together, he might have given himself a window of opportunity - - as it was, he was effectively hobbled. He kicked out, damned good aim considering, and caught Rule between the legs - - had the satisfaction of seeing the man's face go beet red in shocked pain a moment before rage took over.

Rule roared, spittle flying, and fell upon him. His fist came down along with a cascade of bright pain and the taste of copper. Blood flowed inside Lex's mouth, cheek shredded by impact with teeth. Rule perched over him, drawing back his arm to strike again, and from the corner of spinning vision Lex could see the boy loitering around the edges, silent witness with large, emotionless eyes. The second blow made him see stars again, a glittering accompaniment to echoing pain inside his head as his brain bounced around inside his skill. Concussion in the making.

Rule cocked his fist again and hesitated, muttering under his breath. He grasped Lex's hand instead, circling the free wrist with the loose end of the cuff. He pushed up, dragged Lex with him, got an arm around his waist and hauled him to the dangling chain with its rusted hook.

Adrenalin got past the cotton in his head and gave Lex the strength to resist. He let out a wordless growl and arched backwards, slamming his heels down into Rule's instep, twisting desperately even though there was simply nowhere to go.

Rule staggered backwards, legs splayed, body becoming a little colder, a little harder, and Lex hadn't a clue what he'd touched to absorb the qualities of, but the arm that came around his neck was dark and strong and cut off his air with brutal efficiency. Maybe fifteen seconds and Lex's mind was slipping again, spiraling down into light sparked shadow.

Rule jerked him around, letting him breath, hefted him up with the arm around his waist and drew his arms up over his head with the other. Slipped the chain between the cuffs over the tongue of the dangling, blood crusted hook and let him fall. His weight came down and the unforgiving metal of the cuffs cut into his wrists. The pain brought him back, and he scrambled for purchase. He couldn't quite stand flatfooted, and balancing with his ankles taped together took a degree of grace that simply escaped him at the moment. So he dangled there, like meat on a hook, stars still dancing merrily at the corners of his vision, thoughts a haphazard swarm that insisted on scattering rather than shoaling as a cohesive whole.

Rule touched his face, smearing fingers across his cheek and Lex snarled and jerked away. Instinct, that threw him off balance and he teetered forward. A little trickle of something wet and warm snaked down the side of his wrist.

Rule laughed, his humor back, and trailed his fingers down Lex's neck, pressing against the thudding pulse.

"You're filthy," Rule said, back to flesh and blood again, and the fingers bit down, pressing into the hollows beneath the sides of Lex's jaw.

"Hand in hand," Lex spat. "With being fucking buried alive." He was surprised almost he could say it without his voice breaking, because the flash of imagery the mere mention brought with it, was enough to make him flinch a little on the inside.

A sly smile split Rule's face and he stepped closer like he was enjoying the smell of fresh dirt or maybe it was the scent of fear. "Guess it does at that."

He let Lex go, walked towards antique piping sprouting out of the ground next to a support beam, and turned a rusty valve. The sound of squealing metal echoed in the recesses of the empty warehouse, high pitched and torturous. The boy made an unhappy sound, somewhere behind Lex. Rule didn't seem to mind.

Rule picked up the end of a thick hose, the industrial grade sort, and dragged it over.

Fuck. Fu - - was as far as Lex got in panicked comprehension before the blast of water hit him.

It wasn't the temperature that was shocking, but the impact, like getting kicked in the chest by a very large, very wet hoof and then having it start to work over the rest of him.

It knocked him off his balance, shot up his nose and mouth before he could turn his face into his arm and there was nothing to do but hang there and endure, sputtering in indignation that wanted very badly to melt into blathering fear.

Clark hadn't come. Clark hadn't figured it out and God knew Lex's people hadn't worked Rule and the boy coming after him into the equation. They were working on the assumption of their prey going to ground or striking furtively when the urge was no longer controllable. Initiating a major strike against the respective powers that be had been far down on the list of possibilities. They might figure it out eventually, but it wouldn't be soon enough.

This wasn't going to end pleasantly.

How many of Rule's victims had been found? Not nearly so many as the scars marked into the man's flesh to commemorate them.

He wondered how many had stoically held onto pride until the end, refusing to plead for mercy that wouldn't come? He'd like to think he'd be capable of it, but that was wishful thinking. The earth had already broken him and he doubted he could pull himself back together enough to endure the sadistic stylings of a madman's imagination.

Lex was gasping after breath when the water relented. Half blind from water in his eyes, half deaf from it in his ears, skin numb from the battering. He felt Rule's hands on him though. Fingers grasped his jaw, forcing his head up and he blinked water from his lashes, focusing on the gleaming length of the switchblade, then past it to Rule's perverse grin.

"If you kill me," Lex said softly, fighting to keep the tremor out of his voice, looking for that last out, that last chance to reason with a man who's greatest pleasure was the kill. "You'll be on the run for the rest of your life - -"

"I'm on the run now." The blade slid down, severing the buttons of Lex's sodden silk shirt.

"Your patterns are known." Don't look down, don't follow the path of the blade along his belly. "Every disappearance, every body found with a hint of your MO and you'll be that much closer to capture - - you think my facility was restrictive - - see how the government treats mutant psychopaths - -"

"Now you're just being insulting," Rule grinned at him, and drew the flat edge of the blade up the center of Lex's torso, then flipped it around and started slicing through the material of the left sleeve.

"No, I'm offering you an alternative. A man like you - - with your talents, with your particular insensitivities to human suffering - - could be an invaluable asset."

"You're offering me a job?" Rule hesitated, the blade halfway up the remaining sleeve.

"Did you think my interest in meta-humans was purely altruistic? I'm not in business to make the world a safer, happier place, I'm in business to make a profit. And to do that, sometimes men like me, have a need for men like you."

Rule was thinking. Lex could see the consideration in his eyes. And if there had been a grain of truth in the offer, it would have been a damned good one - - hell, if Garrison Rule hadn't been a serial killer, it might not even have been such a fictional proposal. But Lex preferred his attack dogs leash trained and Rule had likely been a wild card from the day he'd been old enough to appreciate the kill. Still, he'd promise him the world, if it got him interested in negotiation.

"What about the boy?" Rule cocked his head towards Gordy.

"The boy, too."

It was a mistake and Lex knew it, the moment the acquiescence left his mouth, but he was off his game. Any offer that looked too good, usually was and Rule was no fool. He tried to cover it with a rider. "But only if he's trainable - - black ops work requires tact."

The blade slid the rest of the way up Lex's sleeve, tearing through thin silk like it was soft butter. Rule stepped in close to him, the hand with the knife brushing his back, curling around and skimming his armpit until the blade lay flat against the curve of his neck.

"Hear that, Gordy? He wants to train you - - you wanna work for him?"

The boy skulked up, restless like a wary beast, eyes glued to the knife against Lex's skin.

"I wanna cut him." The boy said softly and Rule chuckled, free hand splayed out across Lex's stomach.

"Soft skin." Rule commented, stroking appreciatively. Lex clamped his jaw and tried not to flinch when Rule unbuckled the belt, and worked the button beneath out of the hole. "I don't think he wants to work for the man who had him in a cage. I don't think I wanna let you out of this place, false promises or not, in anything other than pieces. I'll train the boy, all right. I'll teach him how to make it last. How to make the quality time stretch out."

Rule beckoned with his free hand and the boy stepped close enough that Lex could smell the sweat on him.

"First lesson Gordy," Rule grinned, and drew the boy's fingers across the hollow just above Lex's jeans, between hip and lower belly. "Is mapping out all the soft places on a body where a man can be hurt without delivering the killing blow, then figuring out all the different things you can do to him, before he begs you to slit his throat."

The boy didn't smile, but his dead eyes glittered. His fingers skimmed up Lex's ribs, like he was touching something precious or something dead - - maybe both - - towards the knife. Drawn towards the knife.

"No," Rule said. "You're not ready for the knife, boy. But don't worry, I'll show you other ways to make him bleed."

The inherent problem with involving Lex's security was they hindered Clark's ability to do what needed to be done without fear of exposure. Not that he was feeling the particular need to be circumspect, the more his desperation levels rose - - but in the long run, it would be problematic for Lex to have to bribe, or threaten, or do worse to members of his security team - - and Clark was not naive enough to think that Lex wouldn't stoop to less than entirely ethical methods persuasion to protect him - - if the need arose.

Clark could understand the feeling. The need to protect what was his at any cost when danger threatened. Even if it meant breaking into Lex's security network in efforts to track him down without setting LexCorp security on full alert. Which might be the next step regardless, if Clark and Clark's resources couldn't uncover Lex's whereabouts.

As it was, he had a LexCorp pass card that would get him past just about any door, he knew where Lex kept his ever-changing security passwords and he had Chloe.

He sat down with all three outside Lex's office near the top of LexCorp South, scanned the office for LexCorp employees and found it empty, then hustled a windblown Chloe in through the sliding doors.

"Flying wouldn't be half so bad," she pushed hair out of her face and rubbed the back of her neck, her cheeks pink from wind chap or emotion. "If you didn't zip around like a bee in a jar. I think I've got whiplash."

"Sorry," he mumbled. "It's the middle of the day, I had to sort of be quick about it."

She gave him a raised eyebrow and moved to Lex's desk and the closed laptop resting neatly center, before the chair.

"Oh," Chloe said, settling down. "This is a really nice chair - - I have got to get one of these."

"It probably cost more than your car," Clark leaned over her shoulder as she opened the computer. He dug in his pocket for the handwritten list of pass codes, he'd picked up from Lex's penthouse apartment. He handed it over and watched Chloe work her magic.

Getting into LexCorp security was no easy feat even with the pass codes, but it would have been impossible from anywhere but within the LexCorp system itself. He was hoping very much they could get the information they needed from Lex's office and not have to risk attempting slipping down to the security level and logging on one those systems.

"I'm in," Chloe crowed softly and Clark shut his eyes in relief. "What's the license plate of the one he was driving?"

"I don't know, but it was the black 911 Porsche."

Chloe chewed her lip and did a search. Clark x-rayed through the office walls to check on Lex's assistant. She was safely behind her desk, working on her own computer. He kept an ear out for movement beyond the doors, and turned his attention back to Chloe.

"I've got it," Chloe brows furrowed a little as she read. "The car's GPS says it's in Grandville - - parked apparently at the intersection of Sufford and Grange - - wait, isn't that where the Grandville Wallymart is? Would Lex be caught dead in a Wallymart?"

Lex wouldn't. Not of his own accord.

"Okay. Come on." He scooped her up with her fingers still on the keyboard and was out of the office before she could yelp in complaint. He sat her down in the alley beside her apartment building, lingered just long enough to make sure she was steady on her feet before he was gone again, heading east.

Without the worry of damaging a frail human body, holding back on speed wasn't an issue. He was over Grandville before Chloe had probably finished taking the breath she'd started before he'd left her. It took a few more seconds to orient himself - - to locate the big Wallymart superstore and the sprawling parking lot outside it. Another few moments to spy the top of the only Porsche in the lot, parked by its lonesome out towards the unpopulated fringes of the parking lot.

Clark set down next to the driver's side door and scowled down at the gaping hole where the window should have been. There were pieces of shattered safety glass on the floorboard and in the well between seats. The ignition was mangled. There was a twisted carcass of something electronic on the floor of the passenger side. A crushed cell phone, Clark discovered when he retrieved it and from the degree of damage done, not something any normal human hand could have managed.

The band of fear in his chest tightened. God, what had Lex gotten himself into? And where the hell was he? The hood of the car was cool, so it had been here a while, and not even under the grandest stretch of imagination could Clark imagine Lex loitering within the confines of a Wallymart. He checked inside regardless, standing at the intersection of two main aisles and scanning the store, shuffling through hundreds of bodies wondering the aisles and dotting the backrooms. No Lex.

He shuddered, gut churning, fighting the impulse to tear through the rows of discount merchandise in his frustration. He needed to tear through something in his frustration, no matter that all the power in the world wasn't going to help him, if he didn't know where to look.

He went back outside, stood by the abandoned Porsche. Took a few deep calming breaths and tried to organize his thoughts. It wasn't easy when his mind kept insistently dwelling on all the terrible things that might have happened to Lex - - things already done and too late to alter. Lex dead - - dumped already somewhere between here and Metropolis - -

God. Clark drew a sobbing breath, and hit the roof of the car. The hood crumpled, the front right tire popping as the frame was driven down.

Damnit. Damnit. Clark pulled out his phone and made a call.




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