SMALLVILLE: THE BLACK RIDER

 

EPISODE 3: GRIM REAPER

 

Prologue

 

 

Postmark: Metropolis, October 27, 2001

 

Dear Clark,

 

I haven't heard rumor of any more hate crimes in Smallville, so I am confident that you went to the police and put a stop to it.  I am proud that you did.

 

However, I have seen reports on extraordinary human abilities in Smallville.  If you believe my assistance is needed for any reason, do not hesitate to call.  Yes, even "heroes" have cell phones.  My number is on the card.

 

The Black Rider

 

 

Part One

 

 

Lex Luthor stood at the second floor railing at the LuthorCorp Fertilizer Plant Number Three, looking down at the gathering employees in the main body of the plant.  Gabe Sullivan, the plant manager, and Jennifer Gaines, the resource officer, chatted quietly nearby.  Large, heavy machinery filled the majority of the space below.  The three-storey plant housed equipment that produced fertilizer and ethanol.  Turbines hummed.  Condensation coated the green-painted hot steam pipes.  Offices on the third floor stood empty.

 

Lex checked the Eldridge knot of his darker hued amethyst and gold striped tie and straightened the matching pocket square.  His double-breasted black suit remained buttoned professionally, the collar of his amethyst dress shirt starched to stiff points.  The florescent white glow of the industrial lights gave his bald head a sickly tint.  He glanced at his gold Rolex.  With the action, people began quieting down.  They must've been watching him like a hawk, in spite of seemingly being involved in their conversations.

 

Lex gave them a wan smile.  "Thank you.  I think you all have figured out why I called for a mandatory meeting this morning," he said, projecting his voice to be heard over the machinery.  "Yesterday, my father decreed that I needed to cut twenty percent of the workforce by Friday."

 

A murmur of dismay rose.  Lex lifted his hands in a placating manner.  "We knew this was coming," Lex said.  "As of this morning, seven percent have already found positions elsewhere, which means only thirteen percent remain.  Gabe and I have decided that the remaining layoffs should be on a volunteer basis.  Those of you who have jobs already lined up, or those with double-income families, or those of you who simply wish to help your neighbor - we're hoping you'll step up.  You're entitled to unemployment compensation and the severance package is generous.  Jennifer will still be available help you obtain employment in any field, if you choose to utilize her.  And unless your record reflects otherwise, you will continue to receive glowing recommendation letters and personal phone calls to prospective employers."

 

Lex gazed at the upturned faces creased with weariness and displeasure.  "I'm sorry.  I wish there was more that I could do.  You're good folks who work hard and are made to suffer at the whims of business," Lex said.  "Gabe will be taking the names of those of you who volunteer to leave.  You have until Thursday at quitting time to come forward.  Thank you."

 

Lex stepped away from the rail to the raise of voices as the employees began speaking to one another in earnest.  He nodded to Gabe and Jennifer, and made his way upstairs to his third floor office. 


The office was small, painted industrial white, and contained a battered metal desk, two black guest chairs, and a framed fire escape diagram.  The wheels on Lex's desk chair squealed when he sat.  The wire inbox and outbox on the desk were both full of papers that had required review and his signature.  Coffee mug rings made crop circles on the green desk blotter.  Lex's laptop sat open on the desktop, waiting for him.

 

Lex rubbed his eyes.  He was both physically and emotionally exhausted.  He hated firing people.  He felt like the Grim Reaper of business, collecting livelihoods instead of lives.  He and Gabe had been at the plant since five in the morning, going over everyone's personnel files and deciding the order of those to be let go, should they not reach the quota through volunteers.  It hadn't helped that Lex had gone to Metropolis the night before, to patrol.  But he'd needed a release from his ire at his father's machinations and patrolling as the Black Rider helped. 

 

The Black Rider was Lex's name in disguise as a vigilante crime fighter in Metropolis.  Coined by The Daily Planet, it derived from the description of his costume: black Kevlar-lined motorcycle leathers, black biker boots, and a fitted black helmet with tinted visor.  He also rode a matte black Suzuki GSX 1300R Hayabusa.  He used tranquilizer guns, a beanbag shotgun, and close-combat hand-to-hand and pepper spray to take down criminals.  He'd cut a twelve-mile crime-free radius out of the city so far and planned on expanding that area.

 

It was while he was in Metropolis, responding to a call the Black Rider received, that Lex had come up with the idea to send a letter to Clark Kent.  Bruce Wayne, Lex's best friend and co-vigilante hero, had suggested that Smallville might need the Black Rider's presence.  Since it would be suspicious if the Black Rider appeared more than once in Smallville without reason, Lex needed a cover.  The Black Rider had helped Clark when the teen had been strung up like a scarecrow in a cornfield as a malicious ritual performed by a few members of the Smallville High School football team.  Lex should've left the Black Rider's calling card then, like he did when he directly helped victims in Metropolis.  He hadn't, but the letter rectified that and gave Lex the excuse to bring the Black Rider back to Smallville, should Clark call.

 

The calls themselves went to voice mail that Lex accessed at least once a day.  Most messages were either gratitude for his help or tips on potential criminal activity returning to a cleared neighborhood.  Very few were calls for help when crimes were being committed or directly afterward.  The police handled those.

 

Lex took a deep breath and released it with a tired sigh.  Late night plus early morning plus having to layoff people did not make for a happy Lex.  What would cheer him up would be to finish the press release and get it to the Smallville Ledger as soon as possible. Lex typed in his password, opened the Word document, and picked up where he'd left off.

 

Despite the increase in profit and the expansion of production, Lionel Luthor, CEO of LuthorCorp and owner of LuthorCorp Fertilizer Plant No. 3, has chosen to fire the good, hardworking employees of the plant...

 

*~*

 

The Torch Online boasted an amazing array of stories: from hard-hitting journalism investigating the safety standards of Smallville High School; to scathing reviews of Homecoming dances and Proms; to sports highlights; to the fluff of kittens found with their mother in the boiler room at the school.  While it was supposed to be the online version of the printed newspaper, there were separate webpages devoted to goings on outside the school.  Lex found those to be the most interesting.

 

Seated on a stool in the kitchen, Lex perused an article about a rabbit that self-reproduced.  His laptop sat angled to his dinner plate on the black marble island that divided the large kitchen.  Above his head, pots and pans hung from the chef's rack, the metal reflecting the recessed lighting against the hardwood cabinets, double convection oven, and stainless steel refrigerator.  Strawberry torts stood cooling on a bakers rack on the black marble counter.  Gertrude Donovan, the tiny, iron-haired and iron-willed cook, stood at one of the two sinks washing dishes.  Her cooking had warmed the kitchen against the brisk late October weather outside.

 

Lex had changed from his work suit into a charcoal trousers and a pewter cashmere sweater that he'd purchased from Delilah's Designs, a chic boutique in downtown Smallville.  He had been pleased when he'd found a clothing store that catered to those who preferred to wear something other than flannels, sweatshirts, t-shirts, and jeans.  He and Delilah Dupree, the fifty-something, sharp and sharply dressed owner, had struck up a friendship and he had plans to meet her for lunch tomorrow.

 

Right now, Lex was focused on dinner.  Gertrude had made him ribeye steak, medium rare, with sautéed mushrooms and medallions.  A baked potato topped with butter, sour cream, and chives along with a vegetable medley filled out his plate.  All ingredients were locally sourced.  Gertrude worked for Lex in the evenings and on the weekends.  Her goal was to fatten him up, claiming he was too thin.  Lex was glad he exercised religiously.

 

"What has you so enthralled over there?" Gertrude commented, wiping her hands on a white dish towel.  The sleeves of her red Smallville High School sweatshirt were pushed up to her elbows. 

 

"The Torch Online.  Gabe Sullivan's daughter, Chloe, primarily writes for it," Lex said.  He clicked on a link that opened the next article, about a cat with potentially nine lives.  "She has a section dedicated to all the strange things that have happened in Smallville over the years."

 

"Strange, as in...?" Gertrude said.

 

"Carrots the size of cars.  A dog who can climb trees like a squirrel.  A woman who can tell the future.  A man who had a tongue like a frog," Lex summarized some of the articles he'd read.  "There are a few recent ones about Tina Greer, who robbed the bank and can apparently shapeshift, and another indicating Coach Walter Arnold set the fire that killed him with his mind."


Gertrude clucked her tongue.  "Fallacies and nonsense.  Ms. Sullivan should be spending her time doing other things than filling the internet with meteorite tales."

 

Lex looked questioningly at Gertrude.  "'Meteorite tales'?"

 

"Folks have been telling tall tales of mutations and other ridiculous things allegedly caused by the meteorite shower here in Smallville, since 1989.  All of it's hogwash.  The meteorite shower only caused damage, death, and injury.  Well, you know.  You were here," Gertrude said.

 

Lex rubbed his hand over his bald pate, self-consciously.  "Yes, I remember it vividly," he said.  He also remembered it had been the source of his preternatural healing ability.  Chloe Sullivan wasn't being as fanciful as Gertrude believed.

 

"I should have words with Gabe.  Let him know about his daughter's shenanigans," Gertrude said, turning back to drying the dishes.  "Don't think I don't remember about her stories in the Middle School Times about the cafeteria!"

 

Lex chuckled under his breath and returned to reading The Torch Online webpages as he ate.  If he read the articles with belief of their validity and even more interest, Gertrude needn't know.

 

Part Two

 

 

There were two main stories in Wednesday's Smallville Ledger: one about a missing coroner and body at the morgue and the other about the layoffs at the fertilizer plant.  Lex was pleased to see his press release in print as he'd written it.  It meant Lionel didn't have a hold on the local press.  At least, not yet.

 

The writer had added a sub-story to the press release, detailing that the layoffs would be chosen via volunteers.  That story praised both Lex and Gabe by name for their compassionate thinking.  It tickled Lex to no end.  The people of Smallville saw that he wasn't the villain of the story.  His father would be pissed.  Lex loved it.

 

Lex swung by the Savings and Loan bank in town at the start of the business day.  His primary job during the week was to ensure that the employees being laid off received their severance package immediately and in full.  He parked the Porsche at the curb and grabbed the manila file folder from the passenger seat before getting out of the car.

 

Main Street was decorated for Halloween.  Banners hung from the black lampposts.  Shop windows displayed cutout witches, vampires, Frankenstein monsters, and cotton spider webs.  Jack-O-Lanterns grinned at doorstops.  A few of the shopkeepers dressed up all week, leading up to Halloween. 

 

The bank was not immune to the spirit of the holiday.  Sitting between each of the teller windows, baby pumpkins nestled with harvest brooms made from dried wheat and ribbons.  Wrapped candies were offered in a plastic skull on the slip table.  A cutout werewolf howled at a full moon from its spot hanging on the bank manager's door.

 

Lex was the only customer currently at the bank.  Others would trickle in as the day progressed.  He approached the teller window and smiled at Gladys Steinholt.  The late forty-ish mother of three, one high school football player and two ten-year-old twins, wore a sequined pumpkin sweater and an orange scarf in her dark hair.  She greeted Lex with familiar pleasantry. 

 

"Lex, good morning.  I trust you're not here to rob us," she said with a wink.

 

"Only of candy," Lex said, holding up one of the wrapped root beer barrels he'd taken from the skull basket.  "Have you read about the layoffs?"

 

Gladys nodded.  "A shame, but you had warned it was going to happen.  It was good on you to do so."

 

"I was doing my best to help.  Jobs don't grow on trees out here," Lex said.  He set the folder on the counter separating them.  "I need to transfer money to the accounts of those who are being laid off.  It needs to be a same day transfer.  I can't leave time for a stop to be put to the transaction."

 

Gladys' thin brows lifted in question.  "Afraid you'll change your mind?"

 

"No.  Afraid my father will take away the severance these people deserve," Lex said. 

 

"Is he that much of a bastard?" Gladys asked bluntly.

 

"And then some."

 

Gladys shook her head and then patted his hand.  "I'm sorry, hon', that you have to call someone like that your father."

 

"I'm used to it," Lex said, though her sentiment warmed him.

 

"Well, now, to business then," Gladys said with a final pat.  "An electronic fund transfer takes a day to process.  If you do it first thing this morning, it should clear by first thing tomorrow morning.  Your other option is to take out the funds in cash and deposit it into the appropriate accounts.  Cash deposits are cleared immediately.  This is just for this bank, mind.  If your employees bank elsewhere in town, the electronic transfer may take longer.  Cash deposits should be the same."

 

"I'll go with cash, then.  I have a list of names, amounts, and their bank information with me," Lex said, opening the file folder.  Inside was a printout of those who had already decided to be laid off.  "I'm going to be doing this daily, to ensure everyone gets their severance.  My last transactions should be on Saturday morning."

 

"I'll let the manager and the other tellers know, though I have the morning shift the rest of this week," Gladys said.  From beneath the counter, she pulled out a stack of pink cash withdrawal slips and a stack of yellow deposit slips.  "The manager has to approve every transaction over a thousand anyway."

 

"Thanks, Gladys," Lex said.  He looked at his list.  "First is Larry Arnolds, with severance in the amount of $9,600..."

 

*~*

 

"So, what do you think?" Lex asked as he maneuvered the Porsche through the employee parking lot at the fertilizer plant.  It appeared that he might have to park in the neighboring cornfield.  He'd given his reserved spot to Jennifer Gaines upon hiring her, and since he was last to work that morning, he was having trouble finding a spot.

 

"I think Smallville has the potential to be as problematic as Gotham," Bruce Wayne said over the phone.  The soft strains of violins could be heard in the background. 

 

Lex and Bruce had been friends since boarding school, sharing a room and nightmares about their respective pasts.  Bruce had wanted to grow up to seek revenge on his parents' killer and Lex had gone along for the ride.  Along the way, goals had shifted with their training and assisting in bringing justice to criminals - not vengeance - had become the focus.  Both were now champions in their own cities, helping the police from the shadows.

 

"I know.  I'm surprised it isn't already," Lex said, tucking his cell phone against his shoulder as he turned into a parking spot.  Lex had sent Bruce a text with a link to The Torch Online the night before, after he'd finished reading the "meteorite tales" on the website.  They both had a vested interest in the enlightening information due to Jeremy Creek and the others Lex had encountered.

 

"Have you done any research into crime in the area?" Bruce said.

 

"I've run the names from The Torch Online articles through the police database.  About fifteen percent of them have come up.  Some are only tickets or drunk and disorderlies.  The others were more serious crimes.  None of the reports included anything about their abilities.  Though I did see a few with a notation that it was a special interest case and the FBI were contacted."

 

"Those are most likely the ones with abilities the local police are unable to handle," Bruce said.  "I can follow up on that, if you'd like."

 

"Nah, I'll do it when I have the time.  If it turns out that's the case, as least I'll know that Smallville has a procedure in place for detaining criminals with preternatural abilities," Lex said.  Since he knew that Tina Greer was a shapeshifter and was in FBI custody, he had a solid trail to follow.  "Speaking of preternatural abilities and criminals, how are things in Gotham?"

 

"I'm currently dealing with someone who calls himself The Penguin."

 

"Really?  That sounds... cute."

 

"He's a mobster."

 

"A cute one?"  Lex grinned at Bruce's sigh.  "I'm at work.  Be safe.  Don't carry around fish in your utility belt."

 

Bruce called Lex a rather colorful name and hung up.

 

*~*

 

Lex's work day was as enjoyable as anyone's who did office work for a living: utterly tedious and boring.  Since he had his laptop, which boasted Bruce's secure technology, Lex spent some time browsing through the FBI criminal database.  He found Tina Greer, along with several other names that had the notation in the Smallville police reports.  All were either serving time or placed in holding pending trial at Arkham Asylum in Gotham.  Arkham Asylum had the facilities to detain special persons that couldn't be held in a normal prison.

 

Lex was satisfied that the criminal justice system did have a place for Smallville's type of offender.  The local police was in the know about it, as well.  If someone like Jeremy Creek were to appear again, Lex could turn them over to the police without worry.

 

Lunch with Delilah was a gay affair.  They'd inadvertently worn matching black pinstripe suits, hers with pink and his with pearl gray.  The fruit and muffins served at The Beanery satisfied.  Partway through the meal, Izzy Brown from the orthodontist's office, Sophie Glass from the salon, and Detective Art Lerner joined them.  Lex's circle of friends in Smallville was becoming bigger than the one he had in Metropolis, although the ages differed greatly.  Lex didn't mind.

 

Conversation rounded to the upcoming Halloween events on Saturday.  "Do you expect any trouble?" Lex asked, after taking a sip of his iced pumpkin latte.  The Beanery had a light sprinkling of lunch customers, with more coming in to order coffee to go.  The round, high tables with stools were preferred over the curved, overstuffed couches.  Halloween decorations mixed with the framed movie posters on the garish orange walls.  The midday sun streamed through the front windows, the letters painted on the glass casting backwards words on the scuffed and faded parquet floor.

 

"Not any more than usual," Art said.  He wore a natty sports coat with a brown knit tie over an institutional yellow dress shirt smudged with pen ink.  His badge was hooked on his belt.  "Some pumpkin smashing, some eggings, some TPing.  Occasionally, we get a broken window, and inevitably someone hurts themselves in the corn maze.  Teenagers pushing each other around."

 

"Are you going, Lex?" Sophie said.  Her perfect pink nails were wrapped around a coffee cup, their color a congruence to her more gothic appearance.  "The hayride is enjoyable, as long as it's not raining or freezing outside."

 

"I'll probably go, so long as time permits," Lex said.  He usually spent Saturday nights in Metropolis as the Black Rider, and Halloween meant the crazies would be out in force.  "Is costume required?"

 

"Only if the spirit moves you, and you don't mind your picture ending up in the Ledger," Sophie said.  "Adults in costume are more novel than the kids."

 

"Thanks for the warning."  Lex had enough publicity for the week. 

 

Conversation shifted again and wound down as lunch hour ended.  A jogger in bright green sweats and a neon yellow shirt entered The Beanery as they were leaving.  A tired-looking woman pushing a stroller of triplets walked slowly along the sidewalk.  A young man with shoulder length dark hair strode quickly past Lex and his friends.  Other business people hurried back to work.  Delilah, Art, Izzy and Sophie walked together toward Cherry Street, and Lex veered off for his car.  He found a flyer stuck under his windshield wiper from the local pizza place.  He'd been called a weirdo plenty of times for being one of the few people in Kansas who didn't like pizza very much.  He preferred Calzones.

 

Nell Potter burst from the flower shop, looking up and down the street with an angry twist of her head.  She pulled her white cardigan tight across her chest and folded her arms.  Lex locked his car doors again with a press of a button and jogged across the street to meet her.  "Is everything all right?" he asked.

 

"No, everything isn't all right.  Some punk beheaded a bunch of my flowers!"  Nell pulled open the door to her shop and marched inside, with Lex at her heels.  Humidity greeted Lex like a damp slap.  Plants and flower displays filled the space in abundance, the florid scent nearly overwhelming.  Glass fronted refrigerators stood along two walls, holding corsages and ordered arrangements.  A selection of cards, stick balloons, and small bears held court by the long counter with a computer register at one end.  Rolls of wrap and ribbons hung at the ready behind the counter.

 

Nell's lined face creased more with irritation as she motioned heatedly at a table of mixed bouquets, a quarter of which were only stems.  "Look at this.  These are ten dollars a piece."

"Do you know what happened?"  At first glance, the stems looked exactly like they were: beheaded flowers.  Lex noticed, though, that no buds littered the floor and no petals were scattered anywhere nearby.

 

"Of course I do.  That snot-nosed punk came into my store, supposedly wanting graveside flowers.  I went in back to get a new tape for the register to ring up his order, and when I came back he was gone and my bouquets were beheaded."

 

Lex thought it was odd.  "Perhaps someone has a grudge against you - or mixed bouquets," he said.  "In any event, you need to contact the police.  Criminal mischief should not be taken lightly."

 

Nell agreed, and went to the phone.  Lex peered closer at the bouquets.  What looked like a layer of thick dust coated the wrappings.  Apparently, mixed bouquets weren't anyone's favorites.

 

Lex waited until the police arrived to take his leave, but not before overhearing the description of the suspect.  A male around Lex's age, with shoulder length dark hair and wearing a black trench coat.  Lex remembered seeing him on the street, but couldn't add any detail, and so he bowed out with a subtle wave to Nell.

 

Checking his cell phone, Lex found he was being beckoned back to work to review an invoice with the bookkeeper.  Joy.

 

Part Three

 

 

Thursday's Smallville Ledger reported the abduction of several elderly patients at the Smallville Hospice and Long-Term Care Home.  The article indicated the patients disappeared sometime between midnight and 6:00 A.M., when morning rounds began.  The Home had few cameras and little security due to budget constraints.  The staff were known to smoke in the ambulance bay and leave the door open at night.

 

Lex read the article carefully and re-read it to catch anything he might have missed.  The police were asking for anyone with information that might help them to step forward, or to call the anonymous tip line.  The names of the patients were listed, along with their pictures.  None of them appeared healthy enough to survive for long outside the Home.

 

Setting the paper aside, Lex logged into the police database and read the official report.  The only additional information not reported by the Ledger was the body-shaped piles of ash that were found in each of the patients' beds, as well as a notation to another file.  Pulling up that file, Lex scanned the report about the missing coroner and body from the morgue earlier in the week.  Ash was also found on the floor at the scene.

 

Lex ran both hands over his bare scalp and cradled them behind his head.  The soft tick of the clock in the kitchen mixed with the rain pattering against the windows.  The remains of his blueberry muffin sprinkled the small plate in front of him on the black marble island counter.  Coffee cooled in his mug.  His brownbag lunch waited at the end of the counter for him to take to work.

 

The disappearances worried him.  He believed the Smallville police had things in hand, but that didn't tamper his concern.  He hoped the patients were all right.

 

*~*

 

Human remains.

 

Lex nearly choked on his spaghetti Bolognese when he read the updated police file.  Gertrude glanced at him before returning to preparing his lunch for tomorrow.  Seated on a stool in the kitchen, Lex's eyes scanned the lab results.  The State Crime Lab prioritized abductions over all other pending cases in the very overworked department.  The chemical results of the ashes found at the morgue and at the Home indicated that they were comprised of human remains.

 

Holy shit, Lex thought, setting his fork down.  Either a mortician was playing a very sick joke, or the missing people were dead.  Or both.

 

Lex scrolled to another page of the police file, his laptop open on the kitchen island counter.  The recessed ceiling lights cast halos of gold on the black marble counter tops and polished wood floor.  Gertrude's cooking had made the kitchen warm, and Lex pushed up his burgundy sweater sleeves as he read.  There was one interview report already in the file from a visit to one of the three local mortuaries.  Lex would bet the other two reports would be added soon.

 

Lex heartily disliked the turn of events.  Five people missing, all possibly dead, in the span of three days.  There had to be something he could do.  He wasn't a superhero.  He didn't have the power to see the future or to read minds.  The Black Rider worked systematically, a block at a time, using surveillance and witnesses to stop crime.  The police had the investigation in hand.  At most, Lex could put up a few cameras at the mortuaries and at the Home, perhaps under the pretense of bringing flowers.  He could hide the lenses in the floral arrangements.

 

Flowers!

 

Lex punched a few keys quickly on the laptop, bringing up the report from the incident at Nell Potter's Flower Shop.  His thoughts on how to disguise his camera equipment had triggered the memory of the beheaded bouquets.  Finding the correct file, Lex scanned the documents.  The officer's dictation reflected what Nell had told Lex: a man around Lex's age with shoulder-length dark hair and wearing a black trench coat had come into the shop to buy gravesite flowers.  She'd gone into the back to get register tape and when she returned, the man was gone and her flowers were beheaded. 

 

There was a picture in the file of the damaged flowers.  Lex enlarged it.  Just as he recalled, there was a thick layer of dust on the paper wraps of each bouquet.  But was it really dust?

 

It could be nothing.  It could be that Nell was a poor shopkeeper.  Lex might be making connections that weren't there.  Still, the niggling possibility that the dust was actually ash had Lex wolfing down the rest of his dinner.

 

"What's the sudden hurry?" Gertrude said, bagging a slice of dill pickle for tomorrow's lunch.

 

"I just realized I left a file at work," Lex lied.  "I need it for the bank tomorrow."

 

"I'll keep the pie warm for you, then.  All you'll need to do is take it out of the oven," Gertrude said. 

 

"Thanks."  Lex shut his laptop as he finished his last bites.  "I'll see you tomorrow night."

 

Lex changed into the sweater and slacks he liked least - both were already two years old and out of fashion - and found a pair of thick, yellow rubber gloves in the garage before he drove out to Nell's store.  An alley wide enough for delivery and sanitation trucks ran behind the businesses and separated them from those on the next street.  Individual security lights illuminated the back doors and rubbish strewn on the ground.  Green dumpsters checkered both sides of the alley at intervals, filled with trash from the stores.

 

Lex lucked out that the garbage trucks hadn't come yet, judging by the number of black bags of trash filling the dumpster behind Nell's.  He was also lucky that she shared with the quilt shop on the other side of her and not The Beanery next door.  There was still an odor of rotting vegetation, old takeout, and moldy cloth emanating from the dumpster.  Lex was hoping that the bag he was looking for was somewhere near the top.

 

Donning the yellow rubber gloves, Lex pulled the first bag off the heap, set it on the ground, and opened the drawstring.  Garbage picking was a legal gray area.  Once a person or business put something outside in the trash, it was no longer considered personal property protected by privacy laws.  However, there was case precedence that garbage placed in bins or dumpsters immediately became the property of the trash company and taking items was considered theft.  Companies were most interested in metals, since they could make a profit by recycling them, but it still applied across the board.

 

Lex didn't have plans to take anything for himself, and if a squad car pulled up he'd tell them exactly what he was doing (though he'd be hard pressed to explain how he knew about the ash).  Lex thought some laws were ridiculous, but that didn't stop him from following them to the best of his ability.  The Black Rider didn't practice vigilantism - taking the law into his own hands - but operated under the Kansas Statute 22-2403 for making citizens arrests.  It was why he strove to have video or testimony available for the prosecutors. 

 

The first six bags Lex checked were filled with fabric scraps, food containers, envelopes, catalogs, flower trimmings, and plastic wrap.  He pulled out the seventh garbage bag, having to lean into the dumpster.  Pulling apart the ties, Lex found what he'd been searching for: the beheaded bouquets.

 

Carefully, Lex opened the bag farther to expose the top most green paper wrapping around the ruined bouquet without spilling the contents.  He removed one yellow rubber glove and wiped his sweat-dampened fingers on his black trousers.  Gently, he swiped a digit across the inside of the paper wrap. 

 

A thick, gray powder coated the tip of his forefinger.  It didn't match the granulated texture or color of soil.  It might still be dust, but it was too coincidental to ignore.

 

Lex tied the garbage bag shut and brought it over to his car.  Later that night, the Black Rider would deliver it to the police.

 

*~*

 

Riding a Suzuki with a bag of garbage tied to the seat behind Lex wasn't exactly fun, or attractive.  Dressed in the Black Rider's outfit of Kevlar-lined motorcycle leathers, gloves, boots, and fitted helmet with tinted visor, Lex brought the matte black Suzuki to a stop behind the police station.  He knew there were monitored cameras surrounding the building, and he gave a solemn salute as he dropped off the bag and typed note regarding the potential connection of the two cases.  The Suzuki had false plates, so he didn't worry about being identified.

 

Lex rode off with a roar of the engine.  He had a few cameras he wanted to set up at the mortuaries and Smallville Hospice and Long-Term Care Home.  It wasn't much, but he hoped it would help the police bring the criminal to justice.

 

Root Funeral Home, Ott Funeral Home, and Mueller Funeral Home were oddly clumped together on the outskirts of downtown.  Two were in former residential dwellings, the third in what might have been a bank at one time.  All three were closed and locked tight in the late hour.  Lex set up his small, wireless cameras at the doors and windows to capture anyone coming or going.

 

The Smallville Hospice and Long-Term Care Home, the Smallville Medical Center, and the Smallville Retirement Center nestled together at the southern end of town.  The Medical Center was lit up and active even at this time of night, with emergencies, illnesses, and mothers giving birth.  The Retirement Center and Home were both quiet, their residents sleeping.  Outdoor security lights and front lobby lights provided the only illumination visible in both buildings.

 

Lex's Suzuki cut loudly through the silence of the night.  He circled around the buildings, and was surprised he didn't see a cop car parked out back.  Then again, one might have been called away, or instead did regular loops around the buildings and around the other businesses at this end of town.

 

He parked his bike in the shadow of the ambulance bay at the Home, dismayed that the bay door was wide open.  He'd heard that staff at homes like this didn't really care about the patients, especially those on night shifts.  It was sad to find out the rumor was true. 

 

His consternation continued when he could see no mounted security cameras inside the bay.  His own cameras were in a pouch at the back of his hip, attached to his utility belt.  He affixed two at the bay door, one facing outside and one facing inward.  The bay itself was open and empty, a place for ambulances to take and deliver patients and nothing more.  Lex crept through the dark to the gray metal interior door and tested it.  It opened smoothly and silently under his hand.

 

Lex muttered an oath at the lack of care, but used the opportunity to slip inside the Home.  He stood in a long hallway punctuated by closed wooden doors.  The hall lights were dim, on nighttime setting.  Artwork hung here and there on the uniform beige walls.  The door closest to Lex had a small plaque beside it, labeling the room number and its function: Ambulance Staging Room.

 

Lex placed a camera above the exterior door, facing inward, and another farther down the hall.  He passed a supply closet, comfort room, and a few patient rooms.  He recognized some of the patient room numbers as the ones from the police report on the abducted.

 

The snick of a door opening had Lex reaching for the nearest door handle.  He slipped inside the unlocked patient room on quiet feet.  The room was dark, soft snores coming from behind Lex, as he peered through the crack into the hallway.  His view was hampered by the angle and his helmet, but he caught a glimpse of black and that was enough to get him moving.

 

Lex drew the tranquilizer gun at his hip, opened the door, and stepped into the hall.  A person around Lex's height with shoulder-length dark hair and wearing a black trench coat rounded the corner at the junction of the hallway.  Lex's boots sounded loud on the tile floor as he moved swiftly up the corridor.  No one came to find out what the noise was, though.  Lex reached the junction and murmured, "Thermal on."

 

The thermal imaging system switched on in his helmet.  Half his visor displayed the reds, yellows, greens, and blues of heat signatures in the area around him.  Lex used the thermal imaging to cut through the walls, enabling him to see around the corner without sticking his head out.  He saw no figures immediately present, and he peeked through the clear side of his visor.  The adjoining hall was empty. 

 

Lex left the thermal imaging on and scanned the rooms on either side of the new hall.  The person in the black trench coat couldn't have gone far.  Unless he could turn invisible, something Lex didn't discount, having read up on Smallville.  Lex spotted two figures in the blues and greens of a patient room two doors down from the junction.  One of the figures was shaded in red and lying down; the other was in hues of green and yellow, standing beside the first. 


The coloration made Lex pause.  Thermal imaging worked by reading heat.  It displayed a range of colors: blue, green, yellow, orange, and red.  The hotter the image, the more red it appeared.  Inanimate objects were usually blue.  Greens and yellow tended to be radiant heat.  Bodies, stoves, fires, furnaces, and the like appeared in oranges and reds.  Unless the person was wearing some sort of fancy heat-shielding gear, Lex didn't know what to make of the abnormal figure.  He'd have to puzzle it out later. 

 

Lex turned off the thermal imaging, crept to the door, and turned the unlocked doorknob slowly.  If it turned out to only be two patients or a member of the staff and a patient, Lex would explain his presence, tell them to lock themselves in the room, and continue his search.  He kept his tranquilizer gun at the ready, in case it wasn't.

 

The overhead light in the room had been switched on, casting a sickly florescent glow over the patient room.  The room had two beds, one empty and one with a patient lying in it, hooked up to a breathing machine, heart monitor, and IVs.  A curtained window with a low dresser in front of it stood across the room from the door.  Flowers and cards adorned the dresser. 

 

The person in the trench coat stood beside the patient.  He was around Lex's age, with a gaunt face, sunken eyes, and sallow skin.  He wore a black shirt and black jeans beneath the black trench coat.  His sneakers were scuffed gray with age.  He reached out and laid a hand against the patient's cheek.

 

The patient disintegrated.

 

Holy shit.  Eyes wide, Lex watched the patient slowly turn to ash, leaving nothing more than an outline of a body on the adjustable hospice bed.  He'd never seen anything like it.  This guy must've done the same thing to the patients who'd gone missing.  He could probably do it to anyone.  Holy shit.

 

That thought spurred Lex into action.  He couldn't allow it to happen again.  He flung the door open the rest of the way, took aim, and shot.  The tranquilizer dart struck home, imbedding itself into the trench coat wearer's chest.  The guy jolted and looked down at the dart.  Surprise colored his brown eyes, but he didn't go down.  Just like Jeremy Creek.

 

Lex cursed, holstered the tranquilizer gun, and snagged the shotgun from the holder strapped to his back.  Alarms hadn't sound, and a glance showed that the monitors had been shut off or unplugged.  The guy brushed the dart away as if it were an annoyance, then his face twisted in anger and he charged Lex with a shout of rage.

 

Lex flicked off the safety and shot a beanbag at the guy's chest.  The guy staggered back.  Lex pumped the shotgun and unloaded another round, followed by another and another until the guy fell to the ground.  Lex holstered the shotgun, grabbed the pepper spray and zip tie handcuffs from his belt, and rushed after the guy. 

 

The guy was already starting to get back to his feet, seemingly unaffected by the hard blows to the chest that would keep another man down.  Lex popped the cap and hit him with a snootful of pepper spray.  Lex's hand-to-hand was exceptional, but incapacitating a criminal swiftly was more important than displaying any skills.

 

The guy grabbed his face with a yowl, and Lex tackled him onto the scuffed tile floor.  Lex struggled to get the zip tie around his wrists.  The guy smacked a hand at Lex's helmet and shoulder, his other hand remained pressing against his pepper sprayed eyes.  Lex grasped at the flailing hand and the guy latched onto his wrist.  The sliver of skin exposed between Lex's glove and jacket immediately felt like it was melting. 


With a curse and a jerk of his arm, Lex hauled back and punched the guy hard in the temple.  The guy's head flung to the right, and he fell limp, unconscious.  Lex's gloved hand detached with the hit and continued its trajectory until it smacked against the wall.

 

Lex huffed out a breath of agony-laced laughter.  He looked at his decapitated wrist.  It was coated in ash, with blood sluggishly pooling in his jacket sleeve.  The melting sensation centered around the area and he knew his body was stopping it from spreading.  With blood loss staunched, he wasn't in danger of passing out, but that didn't stop it from hurting like hell.   

 

Lex struggled one-handed to loop the zip tie handcuffs around the guy's wrists.  Once secured, Lex got up and fetched his gloved hand where it lay propped against the baseboard.  He tugged off the glove with his teeth.  Ash coated the severed limb at the wrist but the rest of the hand remained intact.  He carried it into the en suite bathroom and used the tap to rinse away the ash on the hand and on his wrist.  Blood began to pour more freely from Lex, and he didn't wait to squash the severed limb back into place.

 

Lex turned to lean against the sink, his hand holding his opposite limb still.  He felt the coldness of shock fighting with his healing ability.  It wasn't the first time Lex had lost a limb.  He'd skidded on icy roads a few winters back, went over an embankment, and crashed into the side of a passing train.  His leg had been sheered off.  It had been in the middle of the night and a dodgy part of Metropolis, so no angels were around to help him.  Once he'd found the leg, he'd decided to try sticking it back on, to see if his healing abilities extended to reanimation of limbs.  It had worked.  Lex doubted the trick would extend to decapitation, unless someone was around to stick his head back on.  Bruce had declined to try.

 

He waited until a superficial layer of skin had formed around the severed area before unzipping his jacket and tucking his arm inside as a makeshift sling.  It would be about fifteen to twenty minutes before his hand was fully functioning again.

 

"Phone 9-1-1," Lex said, turning the tap on again to give the sink a thorough rinse.  A soft chirp sounded in his ear as the helmet's voice activated technology complied.  Bruce's software made it so that Lex couldn't be traced or triangulated.

 

The line rang twice, and Lex left the bathroom as dispatch answered.  "This is 9-1-1, what is your location and emergency?" a woman said calmly over the line.

 

"Sunnydale Hospice and Long-Term Care, room 353.  The man responsible for the disappearance of the patients has been apprehended."  Lex dumped the garbage from a bin, removed the plastic bag, and went over to the guy on the floor.  He crouched and tugged the bag over the guy's bound hands.  "He has the ability to kill with a touch.  His hands have been cuffed and bagged.  Do not let the officers, or anyone, remove the bag.  His latest victim is now a pile of ash in bed two..."

 

 

Part Four

 

 

The guy's name was Tyler Randall.  He was in a segregated holding cell in County lockup, wearing full-arm smelters gloves with straps that tied behind his back so he couldn't touch anyone.

 

He was also a walking, talking corpse.

 

Lex sat in his office at the fertilizer plant, laptop open in front of him.  The florescent light above his head flickered, causing a strobe light effect on the industrial white walls.  The hum of heavy machinery carried through his open office door.  Personnel files were piled on the banged up metal office desk, waiting for the termination paperwork to be signed.  The plant had reached its layoff goal plus some.  Lex had to pick who would remain from the final batch.  He was putting it off by reading the updated police file about the abducted patients.

 

Tyler Randall had confessed to ending the lives of the patients.  He claimed he was an incarnation of the Grim Reaper, sent to ease the suffering of the terminally ill.  His mother had been inflicted with cancer, and he'd eased her to the grave at her request.  Her gratefulness spurred him to do the same for others.  He'd been responsible for Nell's flower dying, though it had been an accident.  The coroner's death had also been an accident; Tyler had taken her hand when he'd awoken on the autopsy table.  He was the missing corpse from the morgue.

 

Lex was fascinated and a little afraid.  The zombie apocalypse had come to Smallville after all.  The doctor who examined Tyler had reported that Tyler's heart was beating just enough to keep him functioning.  Otherwise, all other tests indicated he was a corpse.  It explained Tyler's heat signature on the thermal imaging.  It didn't explain why Tyler had returned to life after being killed in a car wreck, other than: Zombie.

 

Lex read the medical report a second time, noting that Tyler had a piece of green crystal imbedded in his wrist.  The doctor indicated it was a piece of meteorite.  Which meant Tyler was a prime example of a "meteorite tale", one he'd seen in action with his own eyes.  The green crystal reminded Lex of Sasha Woodman's paperweight.  It had to be a meteorite.  And she, too, had an ability.  Lex was going to have to learn more about these space rocks.

 

In the meantime, Lex couldn't put off working any longer.  He still needed to get to the bank and to prepare the report for his father on the layoffs.  He logged off the police database and opened the file on his desk.  Marvin Stonegate, age 58, employed at the plant for ten years.  Lex sighed and rubbed his eyes.  He hated firing people. 

 

*~*

 

Message left on the Black Rider's voicemail:

 

Hi, um, this is Clark.  Clark Kent.  I got your letter.  And the card.  Which you know, because I couldn't call you otherwise.  Um, do you think you could come to Smallville? There might be a problem...

 

 

End