“Hello, Angel Investigations, helping the hopeless for a small but reasonable fee. How may I direct your call?” When her only answer was the dial tone, Cordelia scowled and hung up. “Crap, that wasn’t our phone. Whose was it?”
“Sorry, it’s mine,” Lana said sheepishly, flipping open her cell phone.
“Can’t you get it to play like, some cheesy pop song or something?” Cordelia wanted to know. “That way we can at least distinguish it from our phone.”
“Don’t mind her, she’s kinda cranky when she hasn’t had her morning coffee. And after she’s had it,” Doyle said offhandedly, without looking up from the ancient book he had open on his lap. What the rest of the room’s occupants didn’t know was that there was a copy of Sports Illustrated hidden inside the book, the swimsuit issue.
“Great, now why don’t you get back to your incredibly useful study of Miss January?” Cordelia shot back sarcastically.
“I was reading about supernatural rites and rituals!” Doyle held up the book as if to provide evidence.
“Yes, and they appear to involve spandex, tanning oil, and lots of silicone.” Angel strode by and snatched up the magazine in one smooth movement.
Doyle, looking flushed and indignant, turned away from Cordelia’s withering gaze.
Meanwhile, Angel had seated himself on the sofa and was peering a little too long at whatever page the magazine had fallen open to. Cordelia gaped, hazel eyes practically shooting sparks. “Angel!”
He jumped, then appeared to catch himself. “Oh. I, er….” He quickly tossed the magazine onto a nearby coffee table, then turned it over when he caught sight of the buxom bikini-clad model on the front cover.
Lana regarded the whole thing with a mixture of amusement and impatience as she strained to hear the crackling voice on the other end of the line. For a moment her heartbeat rocketed when she thought it might be Clark, but the voice turned out to be unmistakably female. “Sorry, it’s noisy in here and the signal’s not picking up too well,” Lana said. “I’m going outside.” She headed out the door while Cordelia proceeded to get up, grab the offensive magazine, and toss it in the desk drawer.
“Lana, can you hear me?” the caller asked. “It’s me, Chloe!”
Lana’s tone instantly went cool. “Oh, hi.”
“Well, don’t bowl me over with excitement or anything.”
Did you expect me to throw a party over hearing from you? Lana thought, but didn’t say. “I wasn’t expecting to hear from you, that’s all.”
“Are you going to be mad at me forever?” Lana could practically hear the pout in her friend’s voice.
Lana sighed. “No, but I… I’m still going to need some time. Keeping Clark’s whereabouts from me the way you did, when I was worrying every day and night, isn’t something I’m going to get over instantly.”
“I know, and I can’t tell you how sorry I am. I just can’t stand the idea of you being mad at me any longer. You’re my best friend.”
Lana hesitated, biting her lip. Chloe sounded so earnest. Still, it wasn’t like she could shut off the lingering feelings of hurt and betrayal. But it was hard to stay mad when Chloe really seemed repentant.
“Besides, I was calling to tell you that I’m here,” Chloe rushed on. “In L.A.”
For a moment Lana swore her connection must’ve gone wonky on her. “What? You’re breaking up. I thought you said you were in L.A.”
“That’s because I did. I mean, I am. In L.A.”
“You’re in L.A.,” Lana echoed, still wondering if she was hearing things.
“Again, no need to bowl me over with excitement.”
“Sorry, I’m just a little shocked. You’re in L.A.? What for?” A frown crept over Lana’s delicate features. Chloe hadn’t finagled Gabe into coming to get her, had she?
“Relax, I’m not here to get you,” the other girl said, as if reading her thoughts. “I’m here to help you find Clark. I’m worried about him, too, Lana. And I’m also worried about you. Being in the city alone, when you’ve never been there before… there’s no telling what might happen to you.”
“I appreciate your concern, but I can take care of myself,” was Lana’s cool reply. “Besides, I’m working with a private investigator to find Clark… it’s kind of a long story. His name is Angel—whether that’s his first or last name, I’m not sure. I haven’t heard anyone call him anything else. But he’s a good guy, and he seems very capable. He won’t let me get into trouble.”
“That’s reassuring,” Chloe commented, but she didn’t seem totally convinced. “You’re sure you can trust this guy?”
“I am. I know I haven’t always had the best instincts about people, but he’s proven himself. He… he kind of saved me. From a….” She wasn’t sure if she wanted to get into that strange, deformed creature who’d attacked her. Chloe’s reporter instincts would kick in and Lana knew where that would lead. “A mugger,” she finished lamely. “Besides, he has an office and two assistants who seem to trust him with their lives. And he has business cards.”
“Because business cards always mean someone is legit,” Chloe said dryly. “I hope for your sake you’re right, Lana. I’d like to meet this Angel guy myself sometime. Anyway, since I’m in town and all, I was hoping you’d want to meet up for lunch or something. What do you say?”
Lana thought for a moment. She had tagged along with Cordelia to the office today, and spent most of the morning researching and discussing bizarre lore of the demonic and supernatural variety with Angel, Cordelia, and Doyle. Apparently, it wasn’t uncommon for demons to arise in the San Fernando Valley or for vampires to roam about the city streets after dark. Apparently, that was what the creature who’d attacked Lana the night before was—a vampire.
So for the most part, she was reeling from the loads of information she had taken in over the course of the morning. She supposed that growing up in Smallville, home of the meteor freak and Wall of Weird, should’ve prepared her for finding out that the stuff of cheesy horror flicks and scary stories were real, but it really didn’t. However, it did make the notion a little easier to accept.
But it didn’t make it any less frightening.
So Clark was out there, alone, surrounded by demons and vampires and who knew what other things that go bump in the night. What if he’d fallen prey to one of them? What if they had even—and the possibility terrified her more than anything—made him one of them?
Lana forced herself to put a stop to the increasingly macabre turn her thoughts had taken and concentrate on the present. “Well, I’m downtown right now, so maybe we could meet somewhere nearby for lunch. I’m at Angel’s office so I’ll ask one of his assistants if they know of anywhere good. Is that OK?”
“Sounds fine to me.”
“Where are you staying, anyway? If there’s one thing I learned since I got here it’s that distances are a lot farther in L.A. than I thought. I’ll ask how much time you’ll need to get here.”
“Oh, it’s no biggie. Lex put me up in the Beverly Hills hotel. He’s been here several times so he’ll know how long it’ll take.”
Lana almost dropped the phone. “Wait, wait. The signal must be breaking up again because this time I thought I heard you say you came with Lex.”
“I did.” Lana could practically hear Chloe rolling her eyes. “You’re not going to start in on me, too, are you? You of all people should know that Lex isn’t the monster everyone makes him out to be. He’s done a lot of nice things for us.”
Lana had to admit that Chloe had a point. Lex was her business partner, so she liked to think she knew him better than most. She wasn’t as suspicious of him as Pete was. Most of the time, he seemed trustworthy enough.
“He wants to help, Lana. He’s worried about Clark, too. With his resources, finding him should be a lot easier. Plus you’re working with that P.I. I’m sure we’ll find him in no time, and maybe Lex can do what neither of us was able to—convince Clark to come home.”
The sting of Chloe’s words hit Lana full force. She had always thought she and Clark shared something special, that at some point, they might have been in love. The idea that she couldn’t get him to come home, and Lex could, hurt more than she had imagined it could.
“Anyway, I gotta get going now, so when you ask your friend where to do lunch, give me a call, OK?” Chloe went on. “Leave a message on my voice mail if I don’t answer.”
Still digesting the news that Chloe had brought Lex here after her, Lana gave an affirmative and clicked off. When she headed back inside the office, Doyle, Angel, and Cordelia were gathering up what appeared to be various forms of medieval weaponry and preparing to leave.
“There’s some demon rising in Pasadena,” Cordelia informed Lana as she walked back in the room. “We’re going to kill it.” Cordelia grabbed a crossbow and started for the door.
Doyle and Angel shot brief glances at each other before Angel turned to Cordelia and said, “Cordy, I think Doyle and I can handle this on our own. Why don’t you stay back and keep Lana company?”
Cordelia stopped at the door, a frown crossing her face at being left behind yet again.
“I can hang out here alone, it’s no problem,” Lana assured them. “Go on. Fight your demon.”
“No, you shouldn’t be here all by yourself,” Cordelia conceded, unable to keep a note of reluctance from her voice. “I don’t fancy having my pedicure ruined fighting a slimy demon anyway. Besides, I just bought these shoes last week.”
Angel took the crossbow from Cordelia and headed toward the door with Doyle in tow. “We’ll be back in a bit.”
“Try not to get killed,” Cordelia called after them.
“I’ll get in a shot for ya,” Doyle said, casting a wink at Cordelia before departing.
Cordelia rolled her eyes. “Well, if he doesn’t get killed, hopefully the demon will bleed all over that shirt or something so he has to buy a new one.”
“What if it’s even uglier than that one?” Lana wanted to know.
Cordelia grimaced. “Good point.”
“I don’t know, though… clothing issues aside I think he’s kind of cute.”
“Ew, gross.” Cordelia wrinkled her nose. “He’s like old enough to be your… I don’t know, teacher. Actually, I think he was a teacher once. Scary.”
“Come on, he seems like a nice enough guy.”
“Oh, he is. Nice, I mean. But somehow I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the idea of him molding young minds. I mean, there might be a generation of twelve-year-old boys out there sporting bowling shirts and hair that’s never seen a styling product in its life.”
Lana couldn’t help it—the visual made her giggle. “Face it, Cordelia. We’re destined to fall for men who can’t dress themselves.”
“Yeah, between flannel boy and Kramer wannabe it’s pretty bad,” Cordelia agreed. “Well, except the falling for him part. That’s all you, Lana.”
Lana’s only response was a sly grin, which Cordelia pointedly ignored.
“Oh, I forgot to mention, my friend Chloe is here and wants to meet for lunch,” Lana said, changing the subject. “I told her I’d ask you guys about a good place and call her back.”
“Oh yeah, it’s almost lunchtime anyway,” Cordelia observed. “There really isn’t much downtown… we could eat at Fusion Cafe, I guess. They have pretty good sandwiches, but I have to warn you, it’s overrun by FIDM students.”
“FIDM?” Lana echoed.
“The fashion school. It’s a pretty cool place. I would’ve liked to go there.” A wistful expression crossed Cordelia’s face.
“I always did have an interest in fashion design,” Lana confessed. “I wouldn’t mind checking it out.”
“All right. It’s not a long walk, and you could always catch the DASH. Parking is a bitch, so it’s really not worth the effort to drive.”
“I can walk,” Lana offered.
“Oh, it wasn’t you I was thinking of. It’s me. These shoes really weren’t made for walking.” Cordelia glanced down at a strappy wedge sandal. “Hope you got a couple quarters. The DASH is fifty cents.”
Twenty minutes later, Lana and Cordelia strode into the small but airy café located at the corner of Grand and Olympic, right next to the five-floor building and neighboring park that comprised the campus of the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandise. The students were apparently on their lunch hour as well, because the campus and surrounding area was swarming with students sporting their signature tote bags bearing the fashion school’s logo.
Fusion Café was, as Cordelia had predicted, overrun with FIDM students. Judging by what Lana had seen, the student body was about 90% female, which really didn’t surprise her. Most of the girls were, as their choice of study reflected, impeccably dressed in the latest fashions. While the individual styles of the students differed radically, some more streamlined and classic, others more trendy and current, all remained on the cutting edge of fashion. It was about as opposite from Smallville as you could get.
Oddly enough, Chloe still stuck out like a sore thumb at the table where she sat waiting for Cordelia and Lana, who’d showed up a few minutes late. Even surrounded by fashion students, Chloe’s rather, er, flamboyant sartorial choices still singled her out.
When the girls had gotten their sandwiches, Lana made the introductions. “Cordelia, this is my friend Chloe. Chloe, this is Cordelia. She works for Angel investigations.”
“Nice to meet you,” Chloe said eagerly, reaching out to shake Cordelia’s manicured hand.
Cordelia shook back, looking a bit awkward. Who shook hands anymore? “Nice to meet you, too.”
Chloe turned to Lana. “So how goes the search for Clark?”
Well, she wasted no time. “Badly. Cordelia saw him in a bar in West Hollywood, but he ran off before Angel could track him down.”
“Yes, but don’t forget the creep freak part,” Cordelia was sure to mention.
Chloe’s eyebrows shot up so high they practically jumped off her forehead. “Really? What did he do?”
“Let’s just say there is more to your friend Clark than meets the eye,” was Cordelia’s brief answer. “And my God, who the heck would wear that in public? And she calls herself a fashion student.”
Lana and Chloe followed Cordelia’s gaze to a flashily dressed girl standing by the counter. She was decked out in a hot-pink blazer over a shirt and skirt of contrasting patterns.
“Hey, I have that shirt,” Chloe said, frowning.
Cordelia sipped her iced tea, completely unruffled.
“So tell me more about Clark,” Chloe pressed. “What did he do? How do you figure he’s different?”
Cordelia looked as nonchalant as though she and Harmony were discussing her latest conquest at the Bronze. “He acted like an asshole. Totally egotistical. Was hot and he knew it. Which come to think of it really doesn’t make him that much different than my other boyfriends. Anyway, the fact that he has done this Jekyll-and-Hyde thing and that the Kal I met and the Clark Lana knows are so different, it would naturally lead me to believe he’s not like most guys.”
Chloe looked frustrated at Cordelia’s lack of openness. She sensed there was something the older girl wasn’t telling her, and she wasn’t completely off-base. She decided to switch tacks. “I did some quick research on Angel investigations, and you guys have a rep for examining the paranormal.”
That caught Cordelia’s attention. Looking up from her tea, she said with wide eyes, “We have a rep?”
“Yeah. It’s amazing what you find out on the Internet,” Chloe answered, thinking that perhaps if she stroked Cordelia’s ego more she might get something out of her.
“Yeah, well, you all know what a bastion of truth the Internet is. I’m still pissed at the WB for releasing fake [I]Dawson’s Creek[/I] spoilers.”
Or maybe not. “You just have to know which sites to check.”
“What did you do, hack a government database… again?” Lana asked Chloe.
“No. Jeez, what do you take me for, a hacker?”
“She googled us,” Cordelia jumped in without looking up from her tea. “Been there, done that. Hardly found anything and half of it is pure bullshit. And they don’t even mention me! What jerks.”
Chloe shifted in her chair, and it was apparent to Lana that she’d been busted. She couldn’t help but be amused at the way Cordelia could effortlessly shut Chloe down in two seconds, and nobody at the whole of Smallville high seemed to ever manage that—faculty included.
“My sandwich was soggy. And it has onions. I specifically said no onions. I knew there was a reason I hardly eat here anymore.” Frowning deeply, Cordelia began meticulously picking onions out of the sandwich with her French-manicured nails.
“I could help you guys,” Chloe continued, seizing the last available opportunity to get dirt on Clark and on the mysterious Angel investigations—although considering what kind of employees they hired, Chloe was beginning to wonder about them. “I may not be a hacker, but I know my way around a computer.”
“It’s OK. Doyle’s learned enough from bootlegging porn to get around about anything. And if he can’t help, we can always call my witchy friend.”
“Who’s Doyle?” Chloe asked blankly. “And you have a witchy friend?”
“Doyle is the other assistant,” Lana filled Chloe in.
“Really? What does he do? Is he a spy or something?”
“Nah. He’s a drunk and a gambler. And possibly a porn addict,” was Cordelia’s casual response.
“Oh…” Chloe’s eagerness was gradually starting to deflate. “And the witchy friend?”
“She stole my boyfriend. And she’s not even hot. No way is that hair color natural. Guess computer geeks turn him on. He also seems to have a thing for fake blondes. He’d probably dig you, Chloe. No offense or anything,” Cordelia added hastily.
“Is this the guy who owns a Klingon dictionary?” Lana wanted to know.
“Yeah, that guy. And he can like, speak Klingon and stuff. It was highly disturbing.”
“You know, I have a Wall of Weird at Smallville High,” Chloe spoke up, forcing herself to ignore Cordelia’s back-handed insult in favor of getting info. “All the strange paranormal events in our town are immortalized there.”
“Meteor stuff,” Cordelia affirmed. “Lana filled me in.”
Chloe was disappointed. Damn Lana. “Yeah, it’s got everything.”
“Unfortunately, we can’t teleport over to Smallville to check it out, or it would be of use to us,” Cordelia remarked. At that moment, the strains of a polyphonic Backstreet Boys song began pouring out of Cordelia’s purse. “Hold on, phone call,” the brunette said unnecessarily as she rooted around for her phone.
“Hey, Angel, what is it?” she asked with concern upon hearing the deep voice on the other end. “I’m at lunch now… so how’d the case go? ….Oh, that’s great… no, I think that’ll come out with Zout…you should totally try it, got the slime off my white blouse from our last case. Amazing stuff, I tell ya… oh yes, she is… we’re nearby… allright, I’m on my way.” Cordelia flipped the phone shut before announcing, “Girls, I gotta take off. Business calls.”
“OK.” Lana glanced around uncertainly. “Maybe Chloe and I could walk around, check out the school?”
“Not today. I think you have to sign up for a tour or something. Anyway, Angel might want to hear about this Wall of Weird, or whatever. Could give us clues on farm boy,” Cordelia fudged, remembering her promise to Angel not to leave Lana alone… even if it meant bringing her meddlesome friend along.
“All right,” Lana agreed. “That OK with you, Chloe?”
“Sure!” Chloe chirped. She was overjoyed. She had an “in” to Angel Investigations! Who knew what dirt she could dig up? It would be the story of a lifetime!
“So your associates were out on a case?” Chloe pressed as Cordelia and Lana began gathering up their things. “What are they investigating?”
“It’s in the San Fernando Valley. ‘Nuff said,” was Cordelia’s terse reply. “Not pretty at all.”
Chloe tried to mask her mounting frustration as the subject of conversation steered to working out the bill between the three of them. Once they had paid, it seemed Cordelia’s iced tea had caught up with her. She excused herself for the bathroom. Lana went with her.
“Lana, are you sure your friend is trustworthy?” Cordelia asked while they were in the ladies’ room, at the sink.
Lana hesitated. She wanted to give Chloe the benefit of the doubt—she was her best friend. But having caught her in such a major lie really had begun to make Lana question Chloe’s honesty. “She’s not a bad person. A little overzealous sometimes, but she means well.”
“You say she works on your school newspaper?”
“She seems like a real pushy type to me. Reminds me of another bleached blonde I know. Trust me, I have experience with that type. But it’s probably even worse because Chloe is a meddlesome reporter, whereas my friend was just meddlesome.”
“Chloe can keep a secret when she needs to,” Lana defended her friend, although she was more than a little perturbed by Cordelia’s inherent mistrust of Chloe. “Believe me, I know.”
Cordelia, who had been tugging paper towels from the machine, turned to her with a raised eyebrow. “Chloe keep any secrets from you?”
“Only Clark’s whereabouts in the past few months.” Lana couldn’t keep the bitterness out of her voice.
Cordelia’s eyebrows arched even higher, if that was possible. “So this Chloe chick knew where he was and didn’t tell you.”
Lana nodded, pretending the task of grabbing paper towels and drying her hands required utmost concentration.
“Oh yeah, she doesn’t have her own agenda, not at all,” Cordelia said, her sarcasm evident.
“Cordelia, you just met her.”
“I know. And I hope for your sake I’m wrong. But while I’m always looking to drum up some business, Doyle warned me about what might happen if we attract too much attention—namely, attention of the wrong kind. If Chloe should try to write something about us, that just might be what we’ll get.”
With that, Cordelia tossed her used paper towels in the wastebasket and headed for the door. Still vaguely uneasy, Lana followed her but said nothing. She wished she didn’t feel the way she did, but she was really beginning to worry if having Chloe here in L.A. presented more of a complication than she thought.
Outside the Fusion Café, a plainly dressed man watched three young women, two brunettes and a bleached blonde, exit the restaurant. His eye remained trained on the group as they strolled to the bus stop. The man strode up the same stop, as casually as he could. He listened as the two brunettes chattered about the movie costume design exhibit at FIDM they would love to see, while the blonde looked dreadfully bored. When the DASH pulled up the stop, the man jumped on the bus after the girls did, making sure to make his way to the back and put an acceptable amount of distance between them.
Still on the bus, he waited until they disembarked at a location toward the very edge of downtown, heading toward Echo Park. The girls hopped off the bus and began walking toward a nondescript office building.
Disembarking from the bus, the man immediately dialed a familiar number on his cell phone. “I’m at Fifth and Beaudry,” he told his employer. “She’s made contact. They are heading into a building containing several small businesses. I’ll look into it.”
“See that you do,” the voice on the other end of the line said smoothly. “I’d like to know everything that both subjects are doing.”
“Yes, sir.” The man clicked off, while back in the Beverly Hills hotel, Lex Luthor clicked off his own cell phone and smiled.