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Reciprocation

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter five

 

Chloe was still jumpy and it was her own fault for pulling a stunt right out of the Lois handbook and leaping into something before she really understood the implications. Chloe was usually smarter than that, but she was like a terrier after a rat when something really peaked her interest. Curiosity, she'd often admitted, was her best and most damning trait.

It only became really, truly annoying, when she was delving into something Clark would rather keep private, or got herself into trouble she couldn't deal with when Clark wasn't around to help her out of it.

Case in point. The Bennet thing. Once the LexCorp angle had hit a dead end, she'd started looking down other paths. She hadn't said a word about it to Clark. Jimmy only came to him, freaked out and scared when Chloe had been picked up right outside her apartment Sunday afternoon, by what Jimmy described as two very intimidating slabs of beef that would have looked right at home on the set of any hardcore mob movie.

Of course, he'd told Clark this when it was too late for him to do anything about it, other than to fret as helplessly as Jimmy and scour Chloe's computer, both home and work for clues as to what she'd stumbled upon. Some of her stuff was password protected and neither he nor Jimmy had the know how to bypass her protections. Clark kept fighting the urge to toss the damned thing against a wall, but getting to its secrets was a more delicate matter.

When she'd finally called Jimmy, Clark had been on the phone butting his head up against a wall of frustration that was Lex. Clark didn't know who'd been more freaked out, Chloe on the other end of Jimmy's cell, or Jimmy who could barely get a coherent sentence out in-between thanking God she was okay and bitching at her for getting into this mess in the first place. Clark would have zipped across town to get her his own way, if Jimmy hadn't latched onto him and practically dragged him to his beat up old car with intentions of driving them there himself.

"What the hell, Chloe?" Jimmy was out of the car before Clark when they saw her under the awning of a bookstore on Hawthorne Street. She'd looked forlorn and pale, hugging herself against the night in a neighborhood that boasted strip clubs and porn shops, gritty and flickering with dying neon signs.

Cars rolled down the street slowly, drivers trolling for dates by the hour while pimps resided in parked Cadillac's, watching their merchandise. The foot traffic was shadowy and unwholesome.

"I'm sorry you had to come down here to pick me up, guys. Really." Her mascara had bled a little down one cheek. Jimmy hugged her and Clark stood there, glowering, still feeling helpless and hating it.

"What happened?"

She looked over Jimmy's shoulder at him. "I guess I should have taken Lex's advice and just stayed away from the Bennet thing. But that would have been the intelligent thing to do, right?" Her voice broke a little. Her hands on Jimmy's jacket were trembling.

"Chloe, what happened?"

She forced a smile and wiped her hands down the front of her jacket, like she was taking stock of herself.

"What do you think? Me sticking my nose in where it definitely wasn't wanted. I found a lead from one of the Met U students who was distributing the Snazz and picked up a money trail."

"Which led?"

"Absolutely nowhere." She said bitterly. "But apparently somebody had feelers out, looking for Dr. Bennet and when I started prying - asking about things I shouldn't have known if I hadn't actually talked to him - - I got red flagged."

She flinched as a black sedan slowed down a little as it passed them. Clark looked over his shoulder and x-rayed the interior, but there were no goons with guns. Nothing more dangerous than a guilty husband looking for something new.

"Can we get out of here?" she asked.

They piled into Jimmy's Honda and pulled out into Hawthorne street traffic.

"By who?" Clark asked.

"God, Clark, wouldn't I love to know the answer to that question? I've been cornered by meteor freaks and psychopaths, but let me tell you these guys were scary and I think they were just the muscle. They wanted Dr. Bennet in a really bad way."

"Do you know where he is?" Jimmy asked, being out of the loop on all the details of that particular escapade.

"No," she said, then hesitated before adding. "They were really - - insistent. They um - - put a wire around my neck and I was having visions of decapitation."

Jimmy made a sound of outrage, and Clark leaned over the back of Chloe's seat to look under her collar. There was a thin red line across the front of her throat, but skin hadn't been broken.

Chloe shifted uncomfortably and forced a laugh. She looked back at Clark and frowned a little, which meant he must have been seriously glowering. He felt like finding somebody and hurting them.

"They let you go?" he asked.

"I told them everything I knew and I guess they believed me. A

garrote around your neck inspires a lot of honesty. They warned me to mind my own business, put me back in the car and dropped me off here. I called you."

"Home or to the Planet?" Jimmy asked.

Chloe let out laugh that was more sob than humor. "As much as I'd like to ignore all warnings and try and figure out who the hell these bastards are - - I'm really, really tired. I just want to go home."

"Okay. But you're not staying by yourself." Both Jimmy and Clark were unanimous about that and Chloe was freaked out enough that she didn't object.

Jimmy let her and Clark off in front of her brownstone, and drove down the street to find a parking spot.

"Where'd they take you?" Clark had every intention of finding the bastards and doing a little interrogation of his own.

"I don't know, I didn't recognize the neighborhood. It was ten minutes from where you picked me up. The back room of a restaurant, maybe. But listen, I told them more than what I said in the car. I told them about Lex spiriting Bennet away to some LexCorp research facility. If they find him, he knows about you Clark and these guys aren't exactly in the Mother Theresa vein."

"Chloe, if Lex doesn't want him found, he's not going to be found and besides, they're not interested in me."

"Yeah, they want Bennet. But why go to so much trouble for a drug that - -believe me - - isn't going to be big hit with the crowd that likes to not barf up their guts and be non-comatose."

Good question. He wasn't feeling inclined to let it go, but there wasn't a lot he could do, without knowing who they were or where exactly they'd taken Chloe.

He called his mother to let her know he was staying in the city, that Chloe had had a little mishap, but that everything was okay and not to worry.

He went back out once Chloe was settled and Jimmy was on the couch watching muted TV, claiming he wanted to check around the block and make sure no one was lurking. What he really did was go back to Hawthorne Street. Most of the shops were closed, but the clubs were still open and people still loitered on the street.

No one he talked with had seen anything of note, at least that they admitted. All Chloe remembered was a black sedan with tinted windows and pulling up behind a building that could have been a restaurant. Even if he supersped up every street in a twenty block radius of Hawthorne, without something more solid to go on, it was doubtful he'd find anything. There were a lot of black sedans in the city. A lot of restaurants.

Not knowing who these people were, or where or what they really wanted, he was starting to think maybe Chloe should drop it. They were thugs with a beef with Dr. Bennet, who they probably would never find. Maybe they should give what information Chloe did have to Lex, who did have an interest in Bennet, and let him deal with it.

Funny that a month ago, Clark wouldn't have considered the possibility of going to Lex for anything. Of course a month ago - - a week ago - - a lot of things had been different. Last month he'd been perfectly capable of going a week without a Lex thought crossing his mind. The last few weeks, he'd hardly been able to not think about him, and the last few days - - well, it had taken Chloe being kidnapped to get him out of his head.

Clark would have skipped classes the next day and gone into work with Chloe and Jimmy, but there was a test that was a good portion of the grade and Chloe seemed to have bounced back from her ordeal and insisted that he go. She'd call if anything remotely suspicious happened.

"Clark, they weren't after me. They were after Dr. Bennet. As long as I don't raise any more red flags, I think I'll be off their radar. So go take your test and come in early afterwards."

The test was a miserable affair, since his concentration was shot, but he thought he'd passed, even if the flying colors thing was a lost cause. He called Chloe and everything was fine. No threats, no mobsters, not much on the information front.

He stopped home briefly and wolfed down a hastily made sandwich, took care of the essentials around the farm in record time and returned to Metropolis.

The only interesting news were the rumors of the list of hopefuls presently being interviewed for the coveted Editor in Chief position. The newsroom was a buzz of speculation.

He got noticed by the senior staffer he was supposed to be working under after the man came in from a long lunch and sent down to the archives to pull some research. He couldn't even cheat at it, scanning outdated microfiche faster than any human eye could track, because there were a dozen other staffers down there with him, going about the daily business of information collection.

There were frosted windows in the archive that let in diffuse sidewalk level light and the fuzzy shapes of legs could be seen, constantly moving to and fro outside. During the day, the foot traffic was never ending. It never seemed to slow or change patterns and like snow outside a classroom window, sometimes it was easy to get distracted and stare at the rhythmic motion. Especially when he wanted to be upstairs.

Clark was staring at the windows, a pile of notes next to him, when the pattern altered. He heard the deep 'ka-chuung' of explosive sound a moment before the frosted windows rattled, and the ever-mobile legs outside faltered. He cocked his head, listening, even as the staffers in the archives with him started chattering, wondering what had happened - - a car crash outside the building maybe, construction on the street - - but Clark heard the cries of panic and horror that they couldn't.

He was out of the room while the others were gathering at the window, trying to see past the rippled glass. Outside and he could see where the crowd was migrating, across the street towards Luthor West. There was black smoke coming out of the 21st portico. People running out from the colonnaded drive with terror on their faces, even while inquisitive bystanders rushed inward.

Something lurched in Clark's gut. A cold knot of fear that swept up and paralyzed his brain for a few precious moments. The first blare of siren, from way down Temple shook him out of it. It had been maybe a minute, since the windows had shook, and he ran across the street, pushing his way through the gathering spectators, and not particularly caring if he knocked the gleefully curious off their balance and left them wondering what the hell had just shoved past them.

He saw the flaming wreckage of the car, black, oily smoke twining with the rippling incandescence of hot burning gasoline. There was confusion in the drive, men picking themselves up off the pavement, security dribbling out of the shattered glass doors, no more certain of what had happened than anyone else at this point.

Clark couldn't take his eyes off the twisted mess of the car, couldn't stop the bile from rising in his throat. He looked inside it, sorting through distorted metal and melted plastic to find the remains of a human body. Not much left of it. A hand clutching the steering wheel, a leg smashed up under the dash. It was sickening, devastating to see the bare bones off what was left of a man, but some little part of him surged because it was only one man and he'd been in the driver's seat of a stretch limo, not in the back.

He looked past the car and saw people picking themselves up, people that had been at the edge of the blast staggering in shock. Then he saw Lex between the crouched forms of two black-suited security, sprawled and not moving. Relief warred with dread.

Clark surged forward and somebody got in his way, someone in Luthor Tower colors that he plowed aside, engulfed in his panic. Someone else put a hand out, yelling to stay back. This time he stopped, restrained by nothing more than a modicum of reason. Bowling over Lex's security in the midst of all this would benefit no one.

There was a flood of security, finally arriving on the scene in mass, trying to keep the onlookers back. And Lex was down, a spidery imprint of broken glass five feet above his head where he'd probably hit the wall. A smear of blood. Clark focused his hearing, trying to pick up on the beat of one heart amidst a throng of hammering pulses. Then the sirens grew louder, more than one and he couldn't pick through the sounds. He was about to throw caution and good sense to the wind, force his way past grim-faced security and fuck the repercussions, just so he could get close enough to see if Lex were alive.

Lex saved him the trouble. He moved his head, blinking to stare at the burning limo through the gap in the security surrounding him. Clark could hear their insistent questions, yammering at Lex was he all right, could he move. Clark didn't hear an answer. He saw the flash of a camera from the corner of his eye though. Pictures were being snapped in a frenzy, people with cell phones aimed, digital cameras, all wanting to memorialize the car bomb in the middle of downtown Metropolis. To capture frozen images of the wounded, maybe a rare glimpse through the flames, of the dead.

He saw the photographer that had been outside Luthor East the other night, waiting to see who Lex would take home, and a black ball of rage clotted behind Clark's eyes.

The moved and the camera hit the sidewalk with enough force to shatter and the stunned paparazzi stared down at his empty hands in shock, then at the ruin of his camera on the ground. Two more hit the ground, before Clark shook himself out of the temper at the edge of the crowd. A waste of time, really, when the Daily Planet building was right across the street and a floodgate of hungry reporters were already pouring out of its brass doors, desperate for the story. How was he supposed to shield Lex from that, when he couldn't even shield him from a car bomb right across the street? Just like he couldn't protect Chloe from dangers she didn't warn him about. He was failing all around.

Four minutes after the explosion.

The police were on the scene, weeding their way through the chaos and bringing the mantle of authority that private security didn't hold over the general public.

Clark saw the car across the street, pulling away as police were pulling in. He might not have given it a second glance if he hadn't spent half the night in the seedier part of the city trawling for black sedans with tinted windows. He narrowed his eyes, and spied past dark glass and metal. Three men in the car, each one armed. There were weapons in the trunk, not all of them firearms.

Clark's belief in coincidence had been wrung out of him years ago and he made a connection that left him cold and focused.

"Clark!!" Chloe was scrambling across the street in the midst of a pack of other Planet staff. Jimmy had veered off, camera in hand heading towards the blackened portico. Clark clenched his jaw and tried to ignore it.

"What happened?"

"Chloe," he grasped her arm. The sedan was turning onto Temple, slowing to let a roaring fire truck past. "I've gotta go, but I need you to see what you can find out about Lex, okay?"

"Lex? Was that him?" Her eyes widened.

"Close enough. Just - - do it, all right?"

He waited a breath for her nod, then he took off after the car that had disappeared east past the turn.

What he really wanted to do was tear into it, rip it apart like the twisted husk of the limo, yank out the human entrails and hurt them until they squealed. Until they explained to him in terms he could comprehend, why people he valued were being hurt. But if they were simply lackeys, working on someone else's orders, then rattling them might not lead him to the source of the problem.

So he followed, holding the rage at bay, just like he held his strength in check while he moved through a world filled with breakable people, with a will born of nineteen years of unswerving diligence.

It was easy to tell himself the wrath boiling his blood was mostly for Chloe, but he couldn't get the image of the spidered glass where Lex had hit the building out of his head. That smear of blood. A human body didn't need to be caught in the heart of an explosion to perish, residual impact would serve just as well. Internal bleeding, brain swelling . . . so very many things that could snuff out a life.

His nails were biting into his palm, the sting of pierced flesh was a distant awareness. He opened his hands and saw little blood filled crescents, damage only he could do himself, before they closed in on themselves, his body healing itself as no true human body could.

The car drove out of the business district, headed towards the section of city that Clark had spent a good deal of last night searching. It wasn't a restaurant that they finally stopped at, as Chloe had surmised, but a bar. It was the sort of place that catered to neighborhood regulars and looked with suspicion upon strangers entering its smoky recesses.

Clark got looks when he walked in. A scowl from the old man behind the bar as if he'd come in with dog crap on his shoes and smeared it on the floor. Curious, hostile glances from the patrons sitting at the long, brass railed bar. He ignored them, tracking the passage of the three men from the sedan with his X-ray vision as they passed through a back door marked 'private'.

"You drinking?" The old bartender asked shortly.

"Beer." Clark said and when the old man grunted and turned to get it, Clark sped through the bar, a few napkins flying in his wake. He was through the private door, past men that probably would have had issue with him passing it, with none the wiser.

There was storage back here, and an office, behind the walls of which his quarry had settled. Clark paused outside the door, listening. They were talking about dinner and a woman one of them wanted to sleep with behind the back of her husband. It was as if they hadn't just witnessed and possibly caused a car bomb explosion. Maybe they were so deadened to suffering that it just wasn't that big a deal. Dinner and sex was more important.

Clark's patience ran out. He pushed the door open with the heel of his hand and it hit the back of the man standing closest to it hard enough to propel him across the room into the edge of the desk. The other two were reaching automatically for the weapons under their jackets with the reflexes of men used to acting first and thinking later. Clark didn't exactly break the sound barrier getting across the room - - they were staring right at him and even pissed off, he had the sense not to broadcast the extent of his powers - - but he got there before they could clear their holsters. He flicked the one on the right on the forehead, putting him down in a heap of overstuffed, cheap suit on the floor. He caught the other one by the throat and slammed him back against the wall. The gun cleared the jacket and Clark let the muzzle veer towards him before he covered the thick fingers gripping it with his own and squeezed.

The guy screamed as much as a man could who had his throat in a vise. Clark let go the gun hand and the weapon dropped with a muffled thud. Several of the fingers left behind sat at an odd angle. He felt a little twinge of guilt at that casual brutality, but the image of the red mark on Chloe's throat and Lex sprawled under splintered glass made it recede.

"Did you plant that bomb?" he growled, up in the man's reddening face. "Did you?"

He loosened his grip enough for the guy to speak and got a succinct. "Fuck you."

The man was every bit as tall as Clark and heavier by good deal from the look of him. He was most certainly not used to being lifted off his feet by a hand around his throat while the air bled out of him. Clark held him that way, until the face turned a little purple and the struggles grew frantic. He let him down and asked again.

"It - - hack-cough - - it was a contract job."

"To assassinate the CEO of LuthorCorp? Contracted by who?"

The man swung white rimmed, bloodshot eyes up to him. "It wasn't a hit. A message. Somebody wanted a message sent."

"Who?" Clark wrapped his fingers in the man's collar. "And Why?"

"You think I know?" the guy laughed up at him bitterly. "That's not the way it works. We got the job through Metropolis 'contacts', but the orders came from out of town. Somebody big here, scratching the back of somebody big there. "

"Where?" The guy he'd pushed against the desk was coming to, fumbling for his weapon. Clark gently pushed his head into the desk and the guy went still again. The one he was speaking with swallowed.

"We got a number. To call and report progress. That's it." He fumbled in his pocket with his unbroken fingers to bring out a cell. Clark took it from him and pulled up the one saved number. He didn't recognize the area code, but that was easy enough to remedy with Chloe and a computer.

"Any other orders from out of town?"

The man shook his head warily. "Not yet."

"Go after him again," Clark caught the man by the throat again, two fingers this time, in the hollows of his neck. "And I'll find you and we'll finish this conversation. Understand?"

The guy nodded frantically through his struggle for oxygen. Clark shoved him back and he hit the wall and slid down.

He hadn't mentioned Chloe, because, frankly, he didn't know how far threats would go with these men and if she was off their radar, he didn't want to put her back on. Lex was already there, in a louder way than Chloe had been, so it was a mute point protecting his anonymity. Besides, he had a world of security to watch his back, once they knew there was threat.

When he was in the back alley, he dug out his own phone and called 911 to tip off Metropolis PD that the LuthorCorp bombers were in the back room of a bar on St. Charles Street.

 

 

 

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