Lana walked briskly down the dark street, shooting a wary glance over her shoulder every now and then. She hugged her coat more tightly around her, not because it was cold—was it really ever that cold in L.A? This was a territory completely foreign to her. Never in her sixteen years had she seen anything like this. Even Metropolis inspired a totally different feeling. The tawdry, faded glamour of West Hollywood had never really been matched by anything she'd seen. She wasn't sure this was a particularly safe area… despite the hordes of young people strolling along Hollywood Boulevard and the bright lights and gaudy neon signs adorning various night spots, something dark and sinister seemed to lurk in the shadows. It made her uneasy. It made her wonder if it was really such a good idea to run out looking for Clark the day she'd arrived.
It had been three days since she'd received the fateful phone call. It had been late one night at the Talon, and she'd been closing. The phone had rung, startling her. Not only because no one ever called this late, but every time the phone rang some irrational part of her hoped beyond hope that possibly, maybe it was Clark. Ever since she'd had that disastrous run-in with him at Metropolis, she should've known that wherever he'd ran off to, he didn't want to be found. Yet she couldn't help but keep hanging on, hoping that some part of him still remembered the people who loved him and wanted to come back home.
“Hello?” she'd said breathlessly, snatching up the receiver. There was no answer but light breathing. An odd feeling rushed over her, her heart beating faster and her breath catching in her throat. Somehow, instinctively, she knew it was him. She couldn't explain it. But never had she been so certain of anything in her life. “Clark?” she exclaimed. “Clark, is that you?”
Click. Gazing numbly at the phone for a moment, Lana hung up, beset with a sudden feeling of deep despair. But she could not hold back the sliver of hope that continued to burn inside of her. Clark hadn't given up on her. She sure wasn't giving up on him.
So she'd recruited Chloe to trace the phone call. “No offense or anything, but how can you be sure it's him?” the blonde asked skeptically.
“I just know, OK?” She was still holding a grudge against Chloe for not divulging Clark's whereabouts in Metropolis before, and didn't feel she owed her an explanation.
Chloe wasn't convinced. “Well, I did trace the call to a pay phone in West Hollywood. More specifically, a pay phone at 1638 North Cahuenga, outside a club called the Beauty Bar. I don't know what you're going to do with that knowledge, though.”
“I'll take care of it,” Lana said tersely. “Thank you for your help.”
“I hope you're not thinking of running off to get him yourself,” Chloe continued, seemingly oblivious of Lana's obvious desire to not talk to her. “You don't even know it was him. You could be going off on a wild goose chase…”
“Why else would anyone call me from a club in L.A.?” Lana countered.
“Wrong number?” Chloe suggested.
“A wrong number in Kansas?”
“Look, I just don't want you to get your hopes up for nothing,” Chloe told her. “We're all worried about Clark and want him to come home. But you can't just go running off to L.A. based on a gut feeling.”
“I really don't see how what I do is any of your business anymore,” was Lana's cool reply. “You visited him in Metropolis all that time and didn't tell me a thing. I don't see how I owe you an explanation for my decisions. Again, thanks for your help, but this is something I need to take care of on my own.”
Chloe only regarded her with a mixture of worry and pity. “I hope for your sake that you're right. But even if the call really did come from Clark, I think you should hold off on doing anything until you've had more time to think about it.”
Lana knew that Chloe's advice was sensible, but she couldn't do it. Couldn't risk losing Clark again. So she took the money she'd saved up from the Talon, bought a cheap plane ticket and headed to L.A. She didn't allow herself time to worry about whether or not she should've planned or carefully or even told anyone she was going. She was afraid if anyone knew, they'd try to stop her. However, she did leave a note for Chloe and Gabe so at least they wouldn't call the police or something.
Now that she had arrived, Lana wondered if she should've researched the city a little more. She'd never been to L.A. before, and had made reservations online at a small hotel in West Hollywood. But once she'd arrived… well, suffice to say it didn't exactly look like the picture. The dilapidated old building sat amongst a row tenements with bars on all the first-floor windows. The lobby was shabby, her room small and dark. The lone window overlooked a narrow alley, where a homeless man sifted through the dumpster. The whole place wore an air of neglect and squalor than only intensified the rising tide of despair Lana was feeling.
Restless, unable to bear the idea of sitting in that room all evening, Lana finally ventured out with nothing but the piece of paper on which she'd scrawled the address of the Beauty Bar. Fortunately, the hotel was close enough that she had only to walk a few blocks. But it might as well have been a few miles, as far as she was concerned. Every noise she heard made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end, and she was beginning to wonder if she was going to make it home herself…
Then she heard it again. Faint, but definitely there. Footsteps. She quickened her pace, hoping that whoever was following her wouldn't be able to sense her fear. Visions flashed through her mind of being mugged, raped, and left for dead in some grungy alley in L.A. The fighting skills Lex had taught her might've worked on a cocky frat boy, but she was sure there was no way she'd stand up to some hardened L.A. criminal.
She heard the footsteps approach and, throwing caution to the wind, frantically reached into her purse for something resembling a weapon. Damn Smallville—if only it weren't relatively safe to walk around at night, she might have pepper spray or something. She located her keys and, remembering a trick she'd learned way back when, placed a key between her fingers and lashed out and her assailant's face.
The sudden cry of agony she heard told her she'd hit home, but her attacker was too quick for her to make a break for it. She started to run but the person grabbed, her whirling her around to face them. It appeared to be a man in his early twenties or so, his skin a ghastly pale in contrast to the black shirt and jacket he wore. “Going somewhere, sweetheart?” he asked, a predatory smile across his face. Then his features seemed to shift and change before her very eyes, the flesh twisting and contorting around eyes that now glowed with a sickly yellowish hue.
Terror engulfed her as Lana struggled to free herself, but before she could even scream the thing grabbed her throat, pushing the very breath from her till bright spots danced before her eyes. Oh God, I'm going to die, she thought, gradually feeling consciousness start to slip away as the thing dragged her into the nearby alleyway. This was even worse than she'd imagined. She would get maimed to death by a creature more frightening than any meteor freak she'd ever encountered.
“Give the girl a break; can't you see she's from out of town?” a new voice suddenly spoke up. Through the haze of approaching blackness Lana dimly made out a figure standing at the mouth of the alley, his long black coat flapping around him in the faint breeze. Lana's assailant released her as the newcomer suddenly lunged, tossing her back against the wall of the alley. Sliding to the dirty pavement, gasping, clutching her throat, Lana struggled to regain her senses as her rescuer and her attacker fought right in front of her. As her vision cleared, she watched in horror as the two black-clad figures battled with an inhuman ferocity that simultaneously amazed and terrified her. By now her rescuer gained the advantage and, in a finale no less strange than anything Lana had already seen his evening, withdrew what appeared to be a wooden stake from his coat and plunged it into the chest of her attacker. The creature gasped and staggered backwards, then immediately dissolved into a pile of dust in a matter of seconds. Lana couldn't hold back an audible gasp at the sight, and shrank further back against the wall.
Her rescuer then turned toward her, his features stark and dramatic in the dim lighting. Gulping for air, her throat still throbbing, Lana attempted to straighten up.
“Don't move,” the stranger advised her, immediately at her side. “You might be hurt.” He reached out and helped her to her feet. She grasped his hand, surprised to find his flesh cool to the touch. He appeared every bit as human as she was—a bit pale, perhaps, and come to think of it, rather handsome—but the sensation still startled her. Or perhaps she was just so shaken, she wasn't thinking straight.
Considering she'd just been attacked by a grotesque creature out of some kind of nightmare, then saved by a mysterious guardian angel in a black coat, it wasn't entirely out of the realm of possibility.
“Th-thank you,” Lana said unsteadily, knowing the words were pitifully inadequate to convey her gratitude to him for saving her life.
“Don't mention it,” he said offhandedly. He looked at her with concern. “Are you sure you're all right?”
Lana nodded, gradually getting her bearings “You saved my life.”
He simply gave a brief nod of acknowledgement. “You should've be walking around here alone at night,” he said after a moment. “It isn't safe.”
“I gathered that.” She offered an awkward smile, their eyes meeting for a beat before he turned to walk away. He'd made it only a few steps before she called out, “Wait!”
He turned around. “What was that thing?” she asked, catching up to him. “That creature that attacked me… I've never seen anything like it. You seem to be familiar with them.”
“I am. I've seen them around before.”
“Oh…” She wasn't sure what to say to that. “Well, umm, this might sound crazy but I've seen a lot of strange things where I come from, but when I saw that thing… it was a different kind of feeling than anything back home. It was like… I sensed death. I smelled it… oh God, I'm totally freaking you out, aren't I?”
“No, you're not,” was his frank reply. “I hear that a lot. Totally natural reaction.”
“I guess every town has its own strange things, doesn't it?”
“Yeah… you could say that.”
There was still one thing that nagged at her. “How did you know I wasn't from around here, anyway?”
“Let's just say it was pretty clear from looking at you.”
“Oh lord… I really looked that lost?”
He shook his head. “You have this look about you… a kind of innocence, I guess. You wouldn't look that way if you've been here a while.”
“Oh….” The more she learned about this city, the more Lana's uneasiness grew. “OK.”
He started to walk away again, but she caught his arm to stop him. “I just have one more thing to ask you. Sorry if I'm holding you up,” she apologized hastily, “but I actually came here looking for someone. I know it's a long shot, but can you tell me if you've seen him?”
Lana rummaged through her purse and withdrew the picture of Clark she'd brought. Her companion took it, frowning. Then he shook his head. “Haven't seen him. I'm sorry.”
Crestfallen, Lana took back the picture. She knew she shouldn't have expected anything. L.A. was a huge city and the odds of this stranger having encountered Clark were infinitesimally small. Still, she couldn't hold back the crushing disappointment at hitting another dead end.
“Hey, listen,” her rescuer spoke up, noticing her crushed expression. “I run a little agency…I work as a private investigator. If you'd like, we could help you find your friend.”
Lana's hopes instantly skyrocketed. “Could you?”
“Sure. I can't guarantee anything, but we could try.”
“Oh, thank you!” Lana was suddenly overcome by an urge to throw her arms around this mysterious savior, but held it in check. He somehow didn't seem like the most touchy-feely guy to her. Then, as quickly as her hopes rose, they took a nosedive as another thought occurred to her. “I don't know how much I can pay you… I mean, everything here is so much more expensive than I thought…”
“Don't worry about it,” he replied without hesitation. “One thing at a time.”
Lana didn't know what to say to express her gratitude. This man was truly her guardian angel. “I-I don't know what to say….”
“It's all right. This is what we do.” He strode out of the alley and she followed, jogging a little to keep up with his long strides. “My associates are at the Beauty Bar right now, working another case. If you don't mind, I need to meet up with them. You're welcome to come along… that is, if you're old enough.”
With a rather self-conscious smile, Lana showed him the Kansas Drivers' license she'd purchased from this guy at school who was famous for providing fake IDs. She was pretty sure that Lana Lang, Miss Goody Goody, purchasing a fake ID would feed the gossip mill for months.
Her rescuer regarded the ID with a wry expression. “I think it's safe to assume Tricia Burke isn't your real name.”
She shook her head. “No… it's Lana,” she said shyly. “And you're…?”
“Angel,” he replied.
Somehow, she wasn't surprised. “It suits you.”
The conversation lapsed into silence after that, the two of them each lost in their own thoughts. Lana only hoped that her timely rescue by this mysterious young man was a sign that her luck was about to turn around.
God knew she couldn't handle any more bad news.
“OK, so where did you want to go?” Cordelia chattered as she and Kal walked out of the Beauty Bar and onto the darkened street. “Mel's Diner is open 24 hours, and I could go for some fries now… I didn't have much at dinner….”
Man, this girl can talk , Kal reflected as they walked along. He supposed he should've found it endearing, but unfortunately, it was bordering on annoying. She didn't even seem fazed by his lack or responses—and when he did, they tended to be monosyllabic—rather, she seemed to regard his evasiveness as a challenge. Perhaps she should've pretended to be more fascinated by her, but his heart wasn't in it. It wasn't anything about her in particular. He'd come up to her looking for an evening of companionship. But maybe, just maybe, it wasn't enough anymore…
Fortunately—or unfortunately, whatever the case may be—the disturbing turn his thoughts had taken was interrupted when it happened. Again. The splitting pain, the terrifying sensation of all the air being forced from his lungs, the blood roaring in his veins till it threatened to burst out of his skin. He staggered, doubling over from a fresh wave of agony as he felt the skin on his chest start to burn and glow beneath his shirt.
Cordelia became alarmed. “Kal?” she asked, concerned. “Are you all right?” She rushed up to his side, reaching out to lend him her support. “Perhaps you should sit down…”
She took his arm. Her touch burned him like a white-hot iron. “Get away,” he mumbled, jerking his arm free.
“What?” She looked confused.
“I said get away from me!” He shoved her roughly aside and she gasped, noticing the demonic red glow in his eyes.
“Oh God…” she whimpered, teetering on her high heels. Kal took the opportunity to stumble into the nearby alley, clutching his chest. A cry tore from his throat as a wave of burning pain took over. His skin literally felt like it was on fire. The fetid smell of smoldering flesh filled his lungs, his blood roiling as the reddish glow emanating from the symbol on his chest illuminated the alley. He dimly heard Cordelia screaming, her heels clicking against the pavement as she fled from the alley and straight into the arms of her co-worker/boyfriend/whatever he was, falling against him despite the fact that in her heels she had a good inch or so on him.
“Oh, God, Doyle…” Cordelia murmured, clutching his jacket. “You were right. I should've listened to you. But he was so hot! And rich! Why does it seem like every time I find the perfect guy he turns out to be some weird demon freak?”
“Um… just lucky, I guess,” he said awkwardly, patting her back. “Umm… as much as I hate to interrupt this moment—and believe me, I really hate to interrupt it—if he really is a demon, don't ya think we should maybe get out of here?”
Cordelia snapped back into the present. She and Doyle simultaneously turned their heads to where she'd left Kal in the alley. But whatever had incapacitated him must've passed, because all they saw was a dumpster and damp, grimy pavement littered with various forms of garbage.