Friday night drinks
Friday was a write-off after the meeting with Perry. Clark spent most of the afternoon filing. Apart from getting the files away from Lex’s snooping gaze, he thought Lois would appreciate it, but she didn’t even seem to notice what he was doing. She kept her headphones on all day.
Of course he’d tried apologising to Lois about his neglect of their feature article. She’d punched his arm and said ‘Don’t worry about it, Smallville. You owe me one. I like it that way.’ But that hadn’t made the guilty feeling in his stomach go away. In fact, he would have preferred it if she’d given him a harder time about it. Did she really find his unreliablity so predictable?
Lex’s presence in the office grated more than ever. Clark managed to avoid any actual conversations with him, but he kept getting accidently caught in corridors walking towards him, or in the kitchen or one of the break rooms. And there was one awkward moment where he had to squeeze past Lex in a hallway where he stood chatting to some guy from the advertising department. It had been too late to turn around, although Clark had thought about it. He’d kept his head averted as he moved between the two men, cursing not being able to use superspeed.
Clark was nothing if not relieved when five o’clock came.
‘It’s playtime people!’ Jimmy had already shut down his computer and was pulling on a jacket ‘You guys coming for a drink?’
‘I will. Lois, what about you?’ Clark looked round. ‘Lois!’
‘Huh?!’ Lois pulled the chunky headphone away from her ear for a moment.
‘Drinks?’ Clark found himself miming alcohol consumption. Jimmy was laughing at his shoulder.
Lois checked her watch. ‘You’ve got me for an hour, folks.’
‘Got a hot date, Lois?’ Jimmy flashed her a cheeky smile.
‘As if I’d tell you about it.’
‘Oh, we’ll get it out of you!’ Jimmy picked up Lois’s jacket and helped her on with it. He had to stand on tiptoes to get it over her shoulders, which made Clark grin.
Five-thirty found Clark, Lois and Jimmy in Serendipity, a lounge bar off a laneway near the Daily Planet. It was a regular hangout for the Planet’s younger staff. Lois bought the first round. Jimmy had an import beer, Lois had a cocktail that involved brown sugar, lime juice and mint, and Clark had a coke.
The coke came with a straw. Lois shrugged in response to Clark’s raised eyebrow. ‘Guess they thought it was for me.’
In the end, Clark kept the straw. It gave him something to play with, a way to avoid the awkward silence. Jimmy gazed restlessly around the room, clearly finding it difficult to break the ice. All three of them brightened when Chloe turned up.
‘Wow! Quite a welcoming committee!’ Chloe slid the strap of her large carrybag off her shoulder and bent to hug Lois hello.
‘Awww. Don’t we get hugs?’ Jimmy grinned up at her and Chloe rolled her eyes at Lois and Clark. She gave Jimmy a quick hug then moved round to Clark.
‘You too, Clark.’ Chloe’s hug though brief, was warm and open. She placed one hand flat on his back and gripped his arm tight with other. It was comforting. Clark beamed at her and their gazes met briefly. He hoped she knew how grateful he was that she was here. It wasn’t easy for her. The bar was full of Chloe’s ex-colleagues and most of them thought she’d made a massive mistake in her career when she left the Planet to go freelance. Clark knew better.
Chloe dropped onto the sofa beside Jimmy and submitted herself to the barrage of inevitable questions. How was freelancing? How was the documentary going? Had she heard anything more from the publishers she’d been trying to sell her book to? Did she think they’d want a photographer to illustrate? Would she recommend him? Jimmy was pushy but Chloe knew how to handle it these days. Clark watched her proudly. When Jimmy leaned forward and put a hand on Chloe’s knee, Lois broke.
She leaned forward and plucked Jimmy’s hand up, holding it firmly by the wrist, in what Clark suspected was a martial arts grip. ‘Yo. Photo boy. Hands off my cousin, ok?’
‘Lois? It’s ok. I think I can handle Jimmy myself.’ Chloe, amused, tried to distract Lois from the staring competition she’d got into with Jimmy.
‘I know. I just like scaring him.’ Lois grinned and slumped back in her chair. She picked up her cocktail and slurped the last of it through her straw.
‘You’re a strange strange woman, Lane.’ Jimmy glowered at her jokingly.
‘Aren’t I just?’ Lois’s phone beeped. She picked up her bag and checked it. ‘Ah! That’ll be my date. Gotta fly, kids.’
‘Date?’ Chloe looked up wide-eyed. Clark’s tensed. Lois really did have a date?
Lois stood up and grinned down at them. ‘West Wing marathon on cable. I set my alarm for it. I’ve just got time to get home and order pizza. See you, guys! Have a good weekend!’
Clark relaxed. He was relieved no-one else was acting out of character this week. Lex was enough to handle. If he had to deal with Lois dating as well… well, not that he cared, but it just wasn’t right.
Clark watched Lois push her way through the crowd to the door.
‘You staying for another round, Clark? No, I got it.’ Jimmy reached for his wallet. ‘Chloe?’
‘Gin and tonic, thanks.’ Jimmy nodded and made for the bar.
Chloe swung round the coffee table and eased into the spot Lois had vacated beside Clark.
‘So. Bad week, I hear?’ Clark nodded. They’d had patchy conversations on the phone about it, but he’d been waiting to see Chloe in person to fill her in on the details. They talked quietly, keeping their voices low. The bar filled up around them with laughter and end-of-week adrenalin. Jimmy returned with drinks, but quickly abandoned them again to chatter with the other photographers.
When Clark had finished, Chloe stared at her drained glass.
‘So you’re really sure it’s him?’
‘Ok, ok, Clark. I believe you. I just… it’s just hard to imagine Lex doing this. It’s hard to imagine him in the office.’
‘You’re telling me!’
‘And you don’t know why he’s doing it?’
Clark shook his head. ‘He knows Lois and I have got files on him. But I don’t think it can be just that: we don’t have any major dirt. Unless we’ve got something more valuable than we realise…’
Chloe nodded thoughtfully.
‘And no-one else recognises him?’
‘No-one. They all think he’s this guy called Alex. No-one recognises him: Lois, Perry, the photographers, the celebratory columnist: I’ve seen them all talk to him and they don’t recognise him.’
‘So whatever he’s using, however he’s doing this, maybe it doesn’t work on… people like you.’
‘Could be.’ Clark hadn’t thought of that actually. He was glad he’d called Chloe. She always helped.
‘Oh, here, let me get you another drink.’ Clark left Chloe pensive on the couch and made for the bar.
As he passed the door, a group of five or six guys Clark vaguely recognised as admin or finance staff entered. Lex was among them. He was smiling and joking, looking more relaxed than Clark had seen him in years. Quickly he pushed past the group and slid up to the bar. He tried to attract the notice of the barman, but there was a queue and the girl beside him glared and stuck her elbow out to assert her position at the bar.
Clark fidgeted awkwardly. He couldn’t see Chloe from here. What if Lex saw her? What if he brainwashed her as well? Maybe he should just go back to her now? No. No, that was too obvious. Just act normal. Avoid Lex.
‘Clark,’ He felt a hand on his shoulder. ‘Good to see you here!’
Lex was right behind him, smiling and staring at him unashamedly.
‘Let me buy you a drink. What’s you poison, Clark?’
Clark decided to be as firm as possible. ‘I’m buying a round for some friends.’
Lex shrugged casually and leaned an arm on the counter beside Clark. Clark realised he was trapped. He strained again to catch the barman’s eye. When, failing, he turned back to Lex, one of the finance guys was offering him a long-necked beer.
‘Here you go, Alex. Our shout tonight since you’re new.’
‘Thanks.’ Lex’s smile was warm. He looked up at Clark. ‘Nice crowd.’
In the silence, Lex pushed the lemon slice down inside the bottle and took a slow drink, tipping his head back lazily. Clark looked everywhere but at Lex, whose elbow was rubbing against Clark’s shoulder. Clark tried to step back but a squeal behind him stopped him. A cranky-looking blonde said ‘Watch it!’ Clark felt like telling her she shouldn’t be wearing open-toed shoes in a bar.
‘I’ve realised something this week, Clark.’
Clark was annoyed that he was being drawn into conversation. It was uncomfortably hot in this bar. Lex had unbuttoned the top of his shirt. Clark wished he could do the same but the bar was so crowded he could thought he might take someone’s eye out with his elbow if he tried it.
‘I’m starting to understand what motivates the ordinary worker: what makes them keep going day after day, what makes them get up in the mornings and go to a monotonous dead-end job, what makes the drudgery bearable.’
‘Really? I thought you already knew about caffeine.’
Clark caught Lex’s eye for a second. A flicker of surprised amusement passed over Lex’s features before he ordered them again.
‘No, seriously, Clark.’ Lex’s hand skimmed above Clark’s elbow and settled on his arm. Clark thought he could feel Lex’s pulse through the contact, or was he just muddled because he could hear Lex’s heartbeat so loud at this range. ‘There’s a lot of appeal in this life for me.’
Lex’s eyes sought Clark’s and Clark found he couldn’t look away. He always had trouble looking away.
‘The freedom, the easy cameraderie with colleagues, the anonymity… It’s all new to me, Clark. I thought I’d miss the power, the prestige, the attention, but I don’t. It’s so comforting to be thought of as ordinary.’ Lex paused long enough for Clark to reflect that he could see his own reflection in the pupils of his eyes. ‘I guess you wouldn’t understand that, though.’
Lex took another drink of beer.
Clark felt dazed and off-centre. Watching Lex felt so familiar and yet not familiar at all. He’d never been in a bar with Lex before. Lex had never drunk beer before. What was going on? He looked up to find the barman yelling ‘What do you want?’ at him over the noise of the crowd.
Startled, Clark ordered quickly, paid and moved away from Lex before Lex could begin again about freedom and anonymity. He was surprised when Lex slid back slightly to let him out from the bar. ‘Catch you later, Clark!’
Chloe was sitting forward on the sofa when he returned to her. She looked anxious.
‘Sorry, Chloe, I got stuck at the bar.’
‘I know. I saw. I mean…’ She dropped her voice. ‘I saw Lex.’
Clark nearly dropped his coke. ‘You can see him? I mean you see it’s him?’
‘Yeah.’ Chloe looked pale and startled. ‘I mean it’s weird to see him in this context: my mind kind of skips like a DVD with scratches on it, but yeah, I see him. It’s definitely Lex.’
‘Huh. Well, I guess it’s not just people like me then.’
‘No. I guess not.’ Chloe was staring across the room. Clark followed her gaze and saw that Lex had joined the group of guys that Jimmy was with. They were laughing and sharing peanuts. ‘He looks… good. Relaxed. Not very Lex-like.’
Clark grinned. ‘I know. It’s weird, huh?’
Chloe and Clark shared a quick look of bemusement.
‘Sorry, Clark. I know it’s serious. It’s just a little hard to take in when he’s just over there… drinking beer with the guys.’
Lex was, in fact, being slapped on the back by Jimmy. This didn’t seem to be helping his giggling fit one bit because he was doubled over spluttering. The guys around him were roaring with laughter.
‘Can we get out of here, Chloe? I mean after you finish your drink. I’d just like some fresh air, I think.
‘Oh sure, Clark.’ Chloe looked compassionately at him. ‘This must be hard.’
‘Yeah… but if you think we should stay and observe him…’
Chloe took another glance across the bar. ‘No. I think we’re safe. And a walk will help me think.’
Clark finished his coke before Chloe finished her gin and tonic. He stood up. ‘I’ll just go the bathroom. Back in a sec.’
‘Sure. I’ll be finished, I promise.’
Clark had to squeeze past the row of girls waiting for their bathroom to find the men’s room. It was small and dark. Someone was at the urinal so he took a cubicle. He heard the door bang closed and figured the guy must have left, so when he stepped out to wash his hands and found someone standing in the shadows, he nearly jumped back in surprise.
‘Sorry, Clark. I didn’t mean to startle you.’
‘You… you didn’t. I’m just going.’ That was a stupid thing to say.
‘Oh. I was hoping to catch up with you later.’ Clark couldn’t read Lex’s intonation. He assumed it was a more subtle form of sarcasm than usual.
‘Sorry.’ Clark turned the tap on and washed hastily.
‘Clark, I just wanted to have a chance to apologise.’ Lex had slipped up beside him and was standing between him and the door.
‘It’s a bit late for that,’ Clark muttered. He reached past Lex for the paper towel.
Lex caught his arm. ‘The meeting this morning seemed… tense. I hope I haven’t created difficulties for you with Perry.’
Clark jerked his arm out of Lex’s grip as his temper boiled over. ‘Actually? You have caused problems. You know you’ve caused problems. And don’t pretend you didn’t mean to do exactly that when you started all this.’
Lex was frowning. ‘You’re wrong Clark. Creating trouble for you was not my objective.’
‘But you have got one. An objective.’
Lex’s frown softened into a smile. ‘Well, of course, Clark. We all have objectives. And my objective is no secret to you.’
‘What do you mean?’
Lex took a step forward so that they were inches apart. He raised a hand to brush Clark’s cheek. ‘I want to get close to you… to understand you.’
The door banged and someone staggered in. Lex’s hand froze at Clark’s temple. Clark took a startled step back.
‘I’m sorry. Didn’t realise I was interrupting.’ The intruder thudded a cubicle door closed grumpily.
He found Chloe waiting with her bag on her shoulder.
‘Let’s get out of here,’ Clark said shakily.
‘Sure, Clark. Are you ok?’
‘Not really.’ He took her elbow and hurried from the bar.