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Stranded

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter 7

 

Clark was pissed. He couldn't even really pinpoint the root cause - - it was just a tangled snarl of Lex-fueled anger bouncing around somewhere in the middle of him that ate away at coherent thought. Lex made him crazy with his firm belief in self-entitlement, his amazing ability to justify terrible acts. The way his eyes could change in an instant from the cold, indifference of a blue-eyed snake to wide-eyed earnest passion/anger/hurt. The way he used the word Love so damned casually - - twice now - - when he so obviously believed that Clark was a dangerous abomination. When he'd gone after him with the clear determination to kill him if he couldn't gain control. And then had the nerve to bitch about trust issues.

Clark muttered an inarticulate jumble of curses under his breath and held back the urge to super speed out of this depressing place. Leave Lex far behind, leave this crumbling reminder of all the things he'd cared about in his wake. Only there was nothing to run to.

He saw Slick and his group of cronies weeding their way towards the barricade at the far end of the encampment. Moved that way and intersected them, falling into step. They looked at him, wary, gauging and he couldn't really blame them. He wasn't a kid anymore, even though sometimes he felt it. He hadn't thought it at the time, but life had been a whole lot easier back in high school when he'd had people to lean on. People to make decisions for him. People that wouldn't hesitate to shoulder some of the blame when things went terribly wrong.

"So the river's that way, right?" Clark asked.

"Yeah," Slick agreed.

"You ever do any fishing?"

The kids snorted in caustic amusement.

"For what? Can't eat nothin' out there. Not if you don't want to puke your guts up for a week straight."

"Oh."

"You wanna see?" Slick perked up a little, a cheeky grin on his thin face. "In a little while, when it gets dark, you can see the River Rat's fires across the waters."

"Sure," Clark was game. It was a distraction. "Who're the River Rats?"

"'Vengers who live along the water," the girl said. "Pull all sorts of stuff out of the river. Even go into the water to find things nobody else'd want."

"Like you pull stuff outta the dirt, Digger," Slick laughed at her and she narrowed her eyes, glaring.

"Shut up. You're jealous of the stuff I find, Oil Slick"

"Don't call me that," Slick flared and for a while the two of them traded insults while the other kids sniggered.

They slipped out the barricade, the men manning it warning them to be careful, but not hindering their exit.

They walked down streets in what had to be the older part of the city. The damage to the architecture gradually worsened. This section of town, where the river snaked in relatively close to downtown had been in the midst of renovation in another time. Clark had come out here with Chloe when she'd been doing an article about the rebirth of the Waterside district. There'd been lots of restaurants and chic businesses taking residence in refurbished old buildings and warehouses. Lots of new buildings going up.

There wasn't a lot left now. Just the skeletal structure of what used to be and rubble, with a few lone buildings still standing here and there. The wharfs were gone altogether and the dark water lapped at the crumbling stone of the dockside. It was worse across the river. Not much standing at all. If he recalled, it had been mostly warehouses over there, wood and corrugated tin and turn of the century brick and mortar, that wouldn't have stood up well to whatever had ravaged the rest of the city.

The river smelled acrid. The air was rife with the bitter tang of it. The current moved sluggishly and in places he could see the ripple of water as it moved around some submerged thing or another. There had been a bridge not far up river, but it was gone. He focused his vision and saw the blocky sections of it under the surface. Saw a lot of trash under there. Everything from low bellied cargo ships to the ferries that had become popular of late, to cars and the rubble of riverside buildings. There had been a lot of factories upriver that had perched over the water. A lot of metal and concrete and God knew what else that might have collapsed into the water and added its contaminants. No wonder nothing healthy thrived in the depths.

He picked up a rock and tossed it and it skipped - - plunk, plunk, plunk - - across the surface.

"I can do better'n that," one of the boys bragged and a contest of sort ensued.

Clark spun a few rocks out half heartedly, thinking about the last time he'd walked this riverside with Chloe. She'd been dead fifty years. Her and Lana and everyone else he knew, but it was a fresh wound to him. He wondered if she'd looked for him, when he never came back? If she'd managed to untangle herself from the law then she would have. Maybe Lana would have even come back to help in the search when she'd realized he was missing?

Nice thought. Selfish one. Four years of them worrying about him and all for nothing in the end when the world ended without him there to try and stop it. And he ended up here, stranded with a handful of hardened survivors - -and Lex.

Lex who claimed all sorts of things, not least among them love.

Love. You were different because I love you. What did that mean, exactly?

How could you make claims of love in the same breath that you tried to destroy the person in question? How could you love someone- - know someone for so long and just turn around one day and embrace the notion that everything they were was a lie? Sure the alien thing was a shocker - - it had been a shocker to Clark when he'd found out - - but it wasn't like he'd sprouted tentacles or started eating brains or shooting ray beams out of eyes - - okay, maybe that last one - - but he hadn't done it in front of Lex. How could you claim to love somebody and distrust them so completely?

He frowned, skipping another rock violently across brown water and felt a little curl of unease. Of guilt. Maybe he did know how to do that last one. Really well. He'd loved a lot of people that he'd lied through his teeth too, because he didn't trust they could deal with the secret - - because mom and dad had told him time and again that all it would take would be one slip of the tongue and life as he knew it would be over. But when he'd been young, the whole alien autopsy thing hadn't registered as much as the fear that his friends, the people he loved would look at him with horror in their eyes and turn away. And he hadn't had a lot of friends, because he hadn't been able to afford close association.

Lex had been counted in that small number. Lex had rocketed to the top so fast it still made Clark wonder what it had been about him that he'd clicked with so completely. There'd never been the comfort level he'd shared with Pete or Chloe - - always some subtle underlying - - something - - that made Clark's skin tingle sometimes when Lex would look at him a certain way or brush too close. But talking to Lex had been an exhilaration the like of which he'd never felt and in anything not alien related he had trusted Lex - - intimately. Lex had been his confidant in things he'd have died before talking to his parents about, or been too embarrassed to share with Chloe or thought Pete wouldn't have understood.

Lex had tried to look out for him, once upon a time, he realized that, and no matter what Dad had said, or Lana or Chloe, he still believed that back then, the efforts had been honest. And he had to wonder, had to question if maybe what some of Lex had said hadn't been true. That if he'd have leveled with him a long time ago, before it all got out of hand, if Lex wouldn't have tried to help him. If life maybe would have taken a different path, like that water down Granny's wrinkled hand.

Maybe that's why it hurt so much now, when Clark's best interests were the last thing on Lex's agenda and maybe some of the reasons why were Clark's own damn fault.

Spilt milk. It was all spilt milk, past his ability to alter. Decisions had been made that couldn't be changed, bad ones maybe - - or maybe not - - but he had to live with them. They had to live with them. And most of the issues they had were dust now anyway. Dead and gone. No people to protect, no government to threaten, no LuthorCorp resources to back up Lex's ambitions, no anything but what was left here. Nothing but a world laid to waste and really, did it matter anymore whose fault it was?

He skipped another rock and decided to walk, leaving the kids to their own devices, ignoring their warnings that there were things out there that a man who didn't know where he was going, didn't want to encounter alone at night.

Anything out there bad enough to take him on and stand a chance at succeeding, Clark wanted to meet. He wasn't above the idea of taking out his frustrations on something tough enough to fight back.

 


When night fell here, it fell hard and dark. The murk looming over Metropolis absorbed whatever ambient light moon and stars might have offered and shared none of it with the city below.

Lex circled the enclosure twice, walking by the light of fires. Traveling around the edges until his head cleared and he could think without anger and emotion clouding his thoughts. Until he could think about anything other than Clark.

The place these people had cordoned off for themselves was larger than he'd first assumed. There were paths through gutted buildings to the next block over, where the shantytown took up again. Eyes followed him warily as he walked, these people no doubt intimately familiar with their neighbors and suspicious of strangers among them.

He wondered just how many survivors there were, in this fast disintegrating remnant of civilization? This was three maybe four generations past the initial event and it didn't seem a great deal of effort had gone into passing on the merits of education or the skills to make a better life. If attempts had been made to reestablish a power source or try and revitalize livable portions of the city, he saw no sign of it. God knew how bad it had been those first few years. It was entirely possible that no one who had the viable skills to make a difference had survived. Besides, other than entrenched, secular back up power sources like the one under LuthorCorp, Metropolis energy and power had had its sub stations outside of the city - - and everything beyond the suburbs had been leveled.

He saw Jane by one of the fires and moved that way. She was sitting on a battered metal bench that looked as if it had been ripped out of some municipal building.

"May I?" He asked and she canted her head a moment, studying him, before jerking her chin to the empty space beside her. He sank down, and it felt good to be off his feet.

She had a chipped ceramic mug in her hand and she offered it. The smell of strong alcohol drifted up and really, beggars couldn't be choosers, so he accepted it.

It was like drinking paint thinner. He choked on lost breath as it burned its way down.

She laughed softly while Lex leaned over his knees, eyes watering, and commented. "Fresh batch. A little strong this time 'round."

"In other words," he drew in a breath and looked up at her. "It just came from the still tonight? What is that, 200 proof?"

She laughed again and took the cup from his hand.

He sat for a while in silence, considering another swig of Jane's poisonous brew. When she offered it again, he took it. Smaller sip this time. It burned on the way down, but didn't steal his breath. His eyes watered again. It was potent stuff though, quicker than fifty-year-old barrel aged scotch at numbing the aches.

"How many people live here?" he asked.

Jane's eyes narrowed, and he figured that she was justified in a little wariness at a stranger asking that question. For all she knew he could be a scout from one of those rival groups Slick had talked about.

"He won't spread the information. He just likes to know things." Granny walked out of the darkness, reading both his mind and Jane's, probably.

Lex scowled at her, skittish and hating it, in her company. He smoothed the look off his face, chiding himself for losing the façade, no matter that the old woman had the ability to see beneath.

Granny settled on the bench on Jane's other side and Jane passed her the mug. Granny took a sip and sighed.

"Four hundred here," Jane said. "Give or take."

"And the other clans? Are they as - - organized as you? Are there as many of them?"

Granny chuckled at his attempt at tack. Jane furrowed her brow, not getting it maybe, but she shrugged. "We're the biggest. The East Enders have about half as many folk, but they kill each other off as quick as they'd kill one of us, so who knows how many's really holed up over there. There are a few other little clans that don't trust nobody - - family sects - - we keep track when they get too close to here. And then the loners and the crazies."

So maybe a thousand. So few. And as much as he wanted to believe that there had to be more pockets of humanity elsewhere, the pragmatic part of him, the part that knew the statistics on survival rates in the event of the sort of catastrophic acts that could wreck a planet, knew better.

Jane tossed back the rest of the alcohol in the mug and rose. "I'm off to see what that brat of mine is up to."

She ambled off, leaving him with Granny, who wasn't attempting to hide her stare. Lex ignored it, looking past the fire at the shifting bodies in the darkness beyond. He wondered where Clark was. Unlike him, Clark had the ability to flee far and wide of this place. Clark could be half way around the globe by now.

Freakish speed. Miraculous speed. It explained away a great number of Clark related curiosities over the years. He felt himself bristle again, thinking about Clark - - felt himself close to being sucked back into to mire of Clark related brooding and forced himself back from the edge. Forced himself to look out at the dark outlines of battered buildings, the shifting of the people in the darkness. There were a lot fewer now, most of them probably holed up in whatever nook or cranny they'd forged for themselves here.

He could feel the old woman's eyes, razor sharp observation that flayed awareness. He could understand why she might hate him. He'd never been so self-deceiving that he assumed that the obligatory casualties of progress and discovery would thank him for the honor. People for the most part were short sighted when it came to certain necessary evils. He'd regretted the sacrifices. He'd made a point of it.

"But it dwindles, doesn't it?" Granny commented. "The regret. Gets easier each time you pull the trigger."

God. She made ghost hairs prickle on his skin.

"I haven't pulled any triggers," he said lightly.

She smiled, turning her eyes to the fire. Smug old bitch. It occurred to him that six months ago - - half a century - - he hadn't considered her dangerous. He had a different opinion now. Some secrets were dark enough that no one ever needed know they existed.

"And some," she said, not looking at him. "Are so dark, you don't even know they're there."

"And some are worth killing for," he said coolly, not willing to back down from her insinuations this time. Not willing to lose face twice, even if she were spouting nonsense. He knew when he was being toyed with and he didn't particularly appreciate being fodder for someone's bitter amusement.

"You seem to have strong opinions," he leaned back, casually draping an arm across the back of the bench, nothing but ease in his posture. "So tell me, do you place the blame for all this at my doorstep?"

If she did, she'd spread her beliefs eventually and his welcome would undoubtedly chill, if not turn downright hostile. It wasn't a pretty prospect, considering his options, but he had to be prepared.

She canted her head, looking up at him from under her lids, annoyingly silent for a while as if she were pondering a question more philosophical by far than the one he'd asked.

"One way or another the path you were on would have taken us to this."

It was like a blow to the gut - -ridiculous since he believed half of what she said he thought was nothing more than an old woman's supposition. He drew his lips back in a predatory smile of disdain. "You give me a tremendous amount of credit. Flattering really. One man responsible for all of this."

"Wasn't that what you were willing to believe of him? One man. Sounds like crazy talk, doesn't it?"

He narrowed his eyes. Back to Clark. Always back to Clark. "You don't know what he is."

"You think you do? Which voice do you believe? You have a lot of them yammering at you, don't you, Lex?"

He lifted his chin, refusing to flinch, refusing to do anything but smile condescendingly at her. Foolish old woman who thought she could rattle him and gain some upper hand. Foolish old woman who had fallen prey, it seemed, to Clark's rustic charm. Newest member of the club.

She grinned at him, surprisingly strong teeth for her age and the degree of dental hygiene available here. He tumbled complex equations about in his head to clear stray, incriminating thoughts - - to dampen emotion that she seemed so good at picking up.

"Afraid of what I'll see inside?" she asked.

He really needed to get up and put distance between her and him. He didn't know how the people here stood to be around her, with no walls that could protect them from her intrusion. But damned if he was afraid of her parlor trick visions. Damned if he was afraid of what she might see fifty years after the fact.

"Knock yourself out. Tell me what it is that I am, that I don't already know."

She stared at him. Didn't make an attempt to touch - - a good thing since he wasn't entirely sure reflex wouldn't make him flinch away from it.

"Arrogant," she murmured, turning the empty mug in her hands. He'd buy that one. It was an inherited trait.

"Neurotic," she added and he lifted a brow. "Ambitious."

"Insults and compliments in one breath. I thought you were a physic, not a psychologist," he said lightly, but she paid him no heed, licking dry lips, the furrows between her brows deepening as her eyes grew unfocused.

"Searching - - always searching to fill the void."

He felt a chill, a shiver of his own brand of premonition. It was enough. More than enough and he rose, losing face no longer an issue. "That's very insightful. Thank you."

She lifted a hand, as is she were attempting to part some intangible veil. Frowning heavily now. "Damaged. So tangled. Bramble with thorns - - protecting what?"

She looked up at him, blinking back into focus. He stood there on the cusp of stalking off, purposefully not clenching his fists, purposefully smiling down with easy disdain. The mask was second nature, he could pull it up no matter the turmoil behind. He turned. Started walking away.

"You don't know, do you?" she asked sadly in his wake. "Sixty odd years since I was a child, but I remember it well. I remember a good deal. Why does it take a bullet to the head for you to remember scraps?"

He kept walking.

His hands were shaking and he shoved them in his pockets to cover it. She knew nothing. Absolutely nothing. She sensed things and she'd had enough years practice to go for the sore spots like a sniper on a rooftop. But she knew nothing - - couldn't know - - because he didn't. Any dark, terrible secrets he'd already unearthed and dealt with. There were no others.

He swore softly and kept moving, half blind in darkness lit by dwindling fires, treading on the edges of people's little spaces and not caring. There were gaps in his memory of childhood things - - but that was hardly unusual, given that very few of the memories he did have were idyllic. It wasn't until after he'd started spending the majority of his life in one boarding school or another - - on one continent or another, that he'd started to gain an inkling of who he was. Before that he'd been - - what? A quiet little mouse intimidated/awed by the daunting presence of a fiercely demanding father and a mother who had retreated very much into her own world to escape it.

Little wonder there was nothing worth recalling. And if he happened to dredge up a few tidbits relating to something in which he'd been very keenly interested of late, it was only subconscious sifting through useless childhood trivia to pull up needed information.

It meant nothing.

"Looking for a place to bunk? I've got a mattress big enough for two." A woman at the entrance of a ramshackle little collection of boards and canvas invited. She leered at him and the darkness probably hid a great number of flaws.

Invitations from strangers were no uncommon thing and in his younger days he'd thrown caution to the wind and taken up quite a few - - but there was a smell coming from the woman or the contents of her shanty that quelled even the tiniest curl of speculation. Much less the thought of what might be living in the guts of a fifty year old mattress.

He passed her by, not in the mood for a polite refusal. Eventually sleep would be required. Sooner rather than later if the weariness of his body or the distinct lack of ability to hold a simple conversation without loosing his calm was any indication.

He rotated the wounded shoulder and winced at the ache. It still hurt, but it was mobile at least, thanks to his enhanced healing. He could move the arm, though not without pain. He wondered if Clark had found a place here to hole up, or if he'd ventured further a field? He wondered if Clark needed sleep at all? Clark liked to sleep - - that he knew - - having on occasion arrived bright and early at the Kent farm on a weekend morning to discover Clark still abed. Clark also liked to eat and very obviously had an active sex drive if his years of pursuing Lana were any indication. Lex had to wonder if they were actual needs or simply Clark's attempt to fit in with the human world around him.

He considered inquiring the next time he encountered Clark. Smiled coldly imagining the color that would flood Clark's cheeks at the sex drive question. No matter what else Clark was, he was a prude when it came to sex. Most likely his sex play came straight from a guidebook handed down from his puritanical prick of an adopted father. One man, one woman, missionary position.

Lana must have been bored out of her mind. He frowned a little, imagining it. Found a sheltered corner with a few large chunks of masonry and sat down, back against the wall. It was a safe place as any. Doubtful giant cockroaches or other mutated scavengers would venture in among so many people. He wasn't entirely sure of the population at large though. There were people here that looked as if slitting the throat of a stranger to gain his meager possessions would raise no qualms.

He shifted, searching for a comfortable position, slipped his hand in his pocket where it was close to the reassuring grip of the gun. His thoughts drifted back to that imagery of Clark and Lana. He knew Lana's body and could imagine Clark's well enough. He'd dwarf her. All that height, the shoulders of a man built for physical labors. The way the muscles in his back would ripple when he leaned over her, the way she'd get that little worried furrow between her brows when she saw what he had for her - - because of course he'd be proportionate - - and Lana was narrow hipped and tight. He'd have hurt her a little - no doubt and she'd have bit her lip and lied about it, because that's what she did, hid what she truly felt. Because if she didn't Clark would have been guilt ridden - - because that's what Clark did - - shoulder burdens that didn't belong to him and play the white knight like he was born to the role.

Because that's what Clark did - - Lex shut his eyes in annoyance. So easy to fall back into the old way of thinking about Clark and Clark's motivations, even knowing what he did now. Could he have been that blind to an act? That gullible?

He refused to believe it of himself. If there had been ulterior motive other than the constant one of hiding the fact that Clark was alien, Lex would have sensed some sign of it. He firmly believed that there hadn't been a time Clark had tried to evade a question or downright lied to him that he hadn't known it for what it was. And let it slide for the most part &endash; because what other option had he had other than to simply sever relations entirely? Which he should have, time and again - - but the secrets had kept him coming back. And his persistence had paid off - - for the secret was the biggest in human history.

And it had been the mystery that had snared Lex's attention - - and the initial gratitude for his life - - the big eyes and that mouth that drew the eye like a magnet and a body that put classic sculpture to shame - - he could find those anywhere. Buy those anywhere if the urge to quench a need arose.

Which meant what Kara said was true - - that Clark didn't even know.

Kara.

Clark said it hadn't been her. Clark said Milton Fine had been twisting things for his own ends. If Clark was to be believed after all the other lies. He claimed to be proficient at separating Clark's lies from his truths, but that deteriorated into a neigh impossible task when what he wanted to believe came into the mix. Lex was not above admitting obsession. It was an easy self-realization to make. A harder one to shake.

He thought about the last time Fine had insinuated himself - - itself - - into their lives. A consummate manipulator that had played all sides against each other. Turned Clark against him with his insinuations about LexCorp activities, had turned Lex's own manipulations back against him with a masterful stroke. If the construct had known the right things to say then - - it wasn't beyond belief that he'd know the right ones now. It wasn't beyond the realm of possibility that he'd reconstituted if he'd been tied in with the ship and the ship with the black substance - -?

Clark said he'd destroyed him, but what if he hadn't? What if with Clark gone and Lex gone the construct had risen a third time and triggered whatever had devastated earth's population? What if that had been its goal all along, to remove all possible obstacles to its master plan? There would be some clue, some record of it if that were the case in the LuthorCorp mainframe. There had to be. He needed validation that his hadn't been the hand that set this into motion.

He felt a little wave of dizziness, a precursor to worse things if the requirements of the body weren't met. He needed to shut his eyes and rest, but it was no easy thing to stop his brain from churning. How many sleepless nights had he spent these last months, so close to the answers that he could almost taste them? How many days had he functioned on caffeine and willpower alone when sleep couldn't seep in past feverish thoughts? Too many. And though it was entirely possible he'd come to various brilliant conclusions in the grip of exhaustion - - it might also be within the realm of possibility that he'd made a few bad ones.

There was the high-pitched clamor of cats screaming - - tomcats clashing somewhere - - and a disgruntled human voice yelling for them to shut up. Something clattered afterwards, thrown in the direction of the cats, he supposed. The screeching subsided and Lex took a breath, feeling his own pulse slow.

It was enough of a distraction to scatter his thoughts. To let him rest his head against the wall behind and allow the heavy haze of weariness roll over him. He kept his hand on the gun, though his fingers felt leaden.

Of its own accord his mind drifted again, this time flitting across the heavy deco stonework of the rooftop garden outside the city penthouse. Gargoyles perched on the corners of the vast formal creation of hedges and statuary and quietly tinkling koi ponds. It was cold up here in the winter and oppressingly stuffy during the summer months, oppressingly lonely when all you had to do was look down at the greenery of Centennial park below at the tiny specks of joggers, and dog walkers and families out for the day with their picnics and their kites and the laughter one imagined passed between them. You could pretend though, high up over the park, that there was a kite in hand - - you could imagine its colors and the bright streamer and the way it would float like magic in the sky above.

That was the best you could do here in the city, because the Luthor's didn't mingle with the common people in the park below, they simply looked down from their prime real estate and made impressions. It's all about making impressions that last in people's minds, and running around like an idiot and kite flying impresses no one. A sharp mind impresses. Go read a book, Lex.

Lionel's hand was on his arm, thick and heavy like the architecture, not impressed by the mock kite flying. Not impressed by the distraction of a boy taking advantage of the garden space when he'd walked out with a tumbler on one hand and that look on his face - - that dark, looming intensity that warned of short tempers and the smell of scotch if one got too close.

Sorry, father, sorry - - apologies came so easily

Sorry. Don't be sorry, be a goddamned Luthor. Live up to our proud family tradition. Laughter after that. Bitter laughter that Lex didn't understand the meaning of.

Sorry - - what else could he say, with his father so obviously upset?

Are you deaf or just stupid? I told you - - The tumbler went flying, shattering against the back of a stone gargoyle - - that Luthor's don't apologize.

"Fuck - -" Lex blinked back to awareness, scrambling to his feet, empty hand held out in defense, not sure if that had been a dream or the recollection of a mind drifting at the verge of sleep. He shuddered, drawing in air, and sat back down. Perhaps a little of both. The dreams usually faded the instant he woke, all their hidden meanings swept back under the rug of his subconscious, but this one had the flavor of something more realistic. He hadn't thought of that rooftop garden in decades. Hadn't been back to the Centennial park penthouse since just after his mother had died and he'd left for boarding school. He'd forgotten the gargoyles. He'd forgotten a great deal about the Winston building.

Things just as well forgotten. The kite thing was just one speck of unpleasantness that hadn't needed dredging up. Some mysteries he had no need whatsoever to know the truths of. It was the fault of that old woman.

He dusted himself off, drawing another cleansing breath and looked around the compound. Grey light filtered down, a bright point of it low to the east. Early then. Not a lot of people were up and about. He started moving; searching the faces of those that were for the one he wanted.

The boy was running in the garden and tripped. It came to him unbidden, the excuse offered to his mother when she came home a day later. The boy was running and fell. He had no idea where she'd been or if she believed it.

You should be more careful, Alexander. That's what she had said - - those words, the impassive look on her face as if she'd been a thousand miles away. He felt a little stir of disappointment - - of pain - - the ghost of what he must have felt then, and pushed it away angrily.

Goddamned old woman for stirring this up.

He found what he was looking for near the front barricade and it was a relief to shift focus. A group of kids, mulling aimlessly with the shifty-eyed expressions that teenagers with no real purpose often displayed.

"Can I speak with you, Slick?" Lex padded up, catching the boy's eyes unwaveringly, ignoring the ones behind him as if Slick were the only one worth noting. The girl looked disappointed, but he could mend that bridge if he wanted and stroking Slick's ego was more valuable to him at the moment.

"'bout what?" Slick asked, posturing, thumbs in the pockets of his threadbare jeans.

Lex smiled. "A business proposition. If you're game."

"Proposition? You want propositioning, go talk to the hags in the eastside tents." The boy laughed, but Lex could hear the edge of curiosity in his voice.

Lex shrugged. "I thought you might be best suited for the job - - but someone else can benefit."

He turned, striding away. It took the boy longer than he'd thought to catch up with him. Half a block. He didn't slow, just kept strolling along through the stirring compound while a sullen teenage stalked at his heels.

"What benefits?" the boy asked finally.

"I need to get to the L." Lex countered. Better to get what he wanted out in the open before he started negotiations.

Slick snorted. "That ain't no big thing."

"I need to get inside."

"What, you need your head smashed in, too? The Freaky Deaks don't like it when folk tread where they sleep."

"I don't need in through the front door. There are two buildings with underground passages in. At least one is still standing."

Slick stared at him, gauging, not a stupid boy at all. "You know all this, why you need me?"

"You know the safe passages. The places to avoid. You know the best ways to get out of the area fast if need be. Nobody knows the city as well as you, you said it yourself. Was that a hollow claim?"

"Nobody does!" Slick flared. "Why should I risk my neck for you? I don't know you. I don't owe you nothin'."

"No," Lex agreed and casually pulled his lighter out of his pocket. A very expensive, engraved platinum flip top, shiny and slick and heavy with fuel. He flicked it once, an idle gesture and the boy's wide eyes fixed on the flame. He recalled the look in the boy's eyes when the girl had used her battered old lighter at the mouth of the sewer passage. Envy, plain and simple.

Lex flipped the top closed and turned the lighter in his fingers. A small treasure in a place like this. A bright and shiny thing that a boy might risk a little danger and the wrath of his mother to obtain.

"Where'd you find that?" Slick asked, trying for nonchalance and failing.

Lex shrugged. "It was a gift."

The boy's mouth watered.

"It could be yours."

The boy reached for it and Lex closed his hand around it, slipping it back in his pocket.

"After. And this little foray is just between you and me." The last thing he needed was for Clark to get wind of this and interfere.

Slick nodded. "You wanna leave now, or get breakfast first?"

Lex could do with out the grilled roach this morning; his stomach was already fluttery with the beginnings of nervous tension. He wanted to get in, find what he wanted and get out again.

"Now," he said. "We leave now."

 

 

 

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