By Chris Carr <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted August 2000
Summary: When Nigel St John receives an unexpected job offer, he begins to question his relationship with his employer, Lex Luthor. An alternative look at part of Lois and Clark's first season, set in the universe created in the author's "Learning Curves."
INTRODUCTION: This story is set in the same continuity as Learning Curves. It is, however, very different and should probably carry warnings both for its darkness and complete lack of WAFFs.
While I realise that a story told entirely from the point of view of the villains won't appeal to many people, I hope it will nonetheless be worth taking time to read it; the main purpose of this piece is to provide background material for both what has happened in Learning Curves and for what is going to occur in Learning Curves III: Discoveries. I suppose Love, Loyalty and Luthor could be considered as being an excessively long teaser for what is to come.
(BTW, Discoveries most certainly will contain at least a few WAFFs and, like the original story, will be written entirely from Lois and Clark's points of view.)
A quick thank you to all the people, but most especially Wendy, who encouraged me to let this loose on an unsuspecting public.
Tuesday 1 February 1994
Nigel St John put the telephone handset back in its cradle and let his fingers linger against the white plastic for a moment longer than was strictly necessary. The call had been interesting to say the least. And it had been tempting, he conceded silently. Very tempting indeed.
He sighed softly as he drifted over to a sideboard laden with decanters, bottles and cut-glass tumblers. After a moment's thought he selected a malt whisky and poured himself a generous measure. Then he moved over to one of the windows. Sipping the whisky and enjoying the fire as it slid down his throat, he took in the view.
Although not quite as spectacular as the view from Luthor's penthouse balcony, two floors above, the view from St John's apartment was nonetheless spectacular. On a clear day, St John could see across Metropolis's central business district over to Suicide Slum, Hobbs Bay and the Atlantic beyond. The distance often helped him think, enabling him to put weighty issues into perspective. Today, however, leaden clouds were releasing a steady downpour over the city, cutting visibility to a minimum. Perhaps that helped to explain why he couldn't sort his thoughts into any sensible order, why he couldn't make a decision as to what to do for the best.
St John took a larger gulp than he intended of liquid flame and barely suppressed the instinctive shudder he felt as it caught in his throat.
Betrayal wasn't a new concept to St John but it was one that he thought he'd put behind him when, seven years ago, he'd allowed his loyalty to be bought by Lex Luthor. For most of that time the two men had rubbed along together, if not as friends precisely, then certainly as confidantes. Knowing where each other's skeletons were buried had helped to engender a level of trust between them as little else could have done.
St John's next sip was more circumspect than the last.
After all this time, he mused, Luthor was probably closer to him than any other person alive, their relationship transcending that of employer and employee. St John's job description was nebulous, his duties varying from body-guard to assassin to butler to general factotum depending upon Luthor's whim at any given moment in time. Luthor relied upon him as much as he ever allowed himself to rely on anyone; the only other person with whom Luthor shared such a close relationship was his manservant, Asabi. The closeness St John and Luthor shared had to count for something, St John thought. So, why was he even considering going freelance again? He shook his head fractionally; how could he seriously think about Jeremiah Jopling's offer? How could he even contemplate breaking the exclusivity pact he had with his current employer? But that was precisely what he was doing.
St John drained the tumbler and, rejecting the notion of pouring himself another drink, put it to one side. Folding both hands behind his back, he returned to his contemplation of the city.
It suddenly occurred to him that a year, six months, or even as little as three months ago, he would have dismissed Jopling's idea out of hand. That thought, coming as it did out of nowhere, was shocking on two counts.
First, St John, who had often prided himself on his lack of a conscience, was now finding that non-existent conscience was troubling him. Second, something must have happened to upset the delicate balance of his relationship with Luthor. He had not been consciously aware of the shift happening, but now, realising that it had, nonetheless, occurred, St John closed his eyes and tried to recapture the moment when it had happened.
His thoughts drifted to a day just a few months ago. Unmemorable at the time, St John now found the conversation he'd had with Luthor on that particular occasion to be remarkable because it was one of the last times that he could recall Luthor as being entirely focused upon his empire-building strategies.
Tuesday 16 November 1993
"Lois Lane has written a rather splendid expose on our friend Mantel," Luthor said as he lowered the paper just enough to allow him to look at St John. Two pairs of eyes reflected wry amusement at each other. St John, who had also read the article, acknowledged that it was a splendid piece of writing, even if its author had got most of the details wrong.
The exchange seemed to trigger a desire on Luthor's part to share his thoughts. He shook the paper, straightening the pages before he folded it and put it to one side. Reflectively he said, "It's a pity Mantel didn't manage to get that blood sample for us. I'd have liked to know what makes Big Blue tick. Still, at least Lois Lane didn't work out what Mantel was really doing in the hospital. I would have hated for her activity to have been traced back to us. Much better that everyone thinks it was a pointless tabloid stunt, don't you think?"
"Oh, indeed," agreed St John.
"It says in the Planet," Luthor said in the same tone of voice that he might have used to discuss the weather, "that Mantel committed suicide. That she hung herself while in police custody."
St John didn't bother to comment.
Luthor nodded fractionally. "One day you will have to tell me how she did that, Nigel."
"Sir," St John agreed insincerely, knowing that he would never share his trade secrets with his employer.
Luthor stood up and walked over to the balustrade of the penthouse's balcony. He placed both hands on its edge and drank in the view of the city below. Nigel followed him, coming to a stop a respectful distance away, and waited for Luthor to speak again.
"It's a pity we don't know more about that rock," Luthor finally said, his tone thoughtful, referring to an item that had appeared — also under Lois Lane's by-line — in the Daily Planet just a couple of days before.
It had been a compelling piece, St John remembered, describing how Lois had been kidnapped by men from a mysterious government agency — Bureau 39 — and had been held in a small lead-lined cell in a disused furniture warehouse. When Superman had tried to rescue her, he had been struck down by a mysterious illness, allegedly poisoned by a rock that had subsequently disappeared.
Luthor suddenly turned to face St John and said, "Is Lois Lane still pestering my office for that one on one interview she wanted?"
"I believe so, yes," said St John, doing his best to keep his expression bland but not quite succeeding in his endeavours to hide his surprise at the change of topic. "Good. I think I'll invite her over to dinner."
"Sir?" said St John. Luthor had resisted Lois's determined efforts to interview him for months. St John didn't understand why his master would choose to change his mind now.
Luthor smiled faintly and took pity on St John, whose confusion was now obvious. "I want to know what she didn't write about that rock, so maybe an exchange of information is called for."
St John nodded, suddenly understanding and approving of Luthor's thought processes. "I'll see to it directly, sir."
Friday 18 November 1993
St John looked at the table setting with a critical eye. He reached out and shifted one of the forks just a millimetre across to the left. Then he picked up a wine glass and held it up against the light to check that it was polished to spotless perfection. As he put the finishing touches to the setting he smiled a slightly knowing smile, recognising Luthor's pattern of behaviour of old: even if the invitation had its origins in his desire for information, Luthor was nonetheless planning for a perfectly orchestrated seduction.
Luthor, when he tired of a woman, had no compunction about dropping her in the most callous of ways imaginable. St John had heard, just that day, how Luthor had put down that Miranda woman. "You were an itch," Luthor had said. "You've been scratched." St John was therefore fully cognisant of the fact that, with Miranda no longer on the scene, Luthor had a vacancy in his harem. Lois Lane was, judging from all the signs, going to be his next conquest.
Although he was callous and careless of those who no longer held any appeal for him, Luthor's objects of desire were treated with extravagant courtesy for as long as his interest lasted and, as a venue for seduction, the penthouse had proven its worth countless times before. When he set his mind to it, Luthor, St John knew, could make any woman feel as though she was the single most precious person in the world.
Lois Lane wouldn't stand a chance, St John thought. Luthor's women never did.
Given the certainty of his predictions, St John was taken aback by the way the evening progressed. In his role of butler, waiting on the diners or standing alert in the shadows until he was needed again, St John witnessed the sorry occasion in its entirety; he watched and listened with a kind of appalled fascination as events unfolded. Not only did Luthor completely forget to raise the question of the rock, he also allowed his normally refined lines to give way to a more clumsy monologue. Forced to watch Luthor overplay his hand again and again, St John found himself rolling his eyes in disgust behind his employer's back.
St John had sometimes wondered if Luthor's choice of bed-mates was a result of a deep-seated need to prove something to himself. From what little St John had managed to glean of Luthor's background, he knew that the billionaire had worked hard to transcend his modest beginnings. He surrounded himself with the best and most expensive of everything, not because he particularly wanted the objects in question, but simply because he could. His choice of women seemed to be part and parcel of a more general attitude. Luthor had a predilection for beautiful women, but they were also invariably free-thinking individuals, blessed with undeniable intelligence: Gretchen Kelly was a doctor with a reputation for being a talented researcher, Antoinette Baines had been a rocket scientist and Miranda — his latest cast-off — was a gifted chemist, even if she did choose to fritter away her talents on frivolities such as perfume. St John suspected that the appeal they held for Luthor lay as much in the challenge he faced when he sought to vanquish their ability to think independently of him as it did in the physical pleasure they afforded him.
And now here was Lois Lane, star reporter.
Always the flatterer, Luthor's compliments were usually carefully paced throughout the meal. Moreover they were normally interspersed with cunningly contrived small talk designed to demonstrate an interest in the woman's mind as well as her body. But Luthor, tonight, wasn't bothering to comment on her skills as a journalist. For oncehe was commenting solely on her physical attributes and thereby was demonstrating the shallowness he usually managed to hide behind a shroud of small talk. Luthor's poor behaviour rose in a crescendo of compliments, blatant innuendo and then outright suggestion as the meal proceeded. As the asparagus spears were placed in front of them, Luthor said, leaning in across the table in order to get a closer look, "Your eyes. I've never noticed your eyes before."
St John watched from the shadows as Lois ducked her head and twin spots of flushed embarrassment popped up on her cheeks. She tried to cover her blush by toying with her food. She nibbled daintily at her fork before she protested weakly, "Stop… You're embarrassing me."
Perhaps she really was embarrassed, St John thought, but he was nonetheless sure that Lois was pleased by the comments. After all, all women liked to be told how desirable they were from time to time.
Luthor ignored Lois's words. "Your hands… just so graceful. So delicate. Like fine porcelain."
Lois lifted her gaze once more. The delicate expression of pleasure she'd worn moments before segued into the faintest of concerned frowns. She said, "You're acting very strangely tonight, Lex."
St John found himself mentally nodding in agreement. Lex Luthor was not one of nature's fools, but his current behaviour was decidedly foolish.
Again Lois's words washed unheeded over Luthor's head. More than simply ignoring her, it was as if she hadn't even spoken.
"You are the most beautiful creature I've ever seen," Luthor said.
Something in Lois's expression told St John that Luthor had already gone too far. Lois might have received Luthor's initial admiration with pleasure but his words were no longer being met with a smile. Rather Lois was looking slightly uncomfortable, and the confident ease she had displayed upon her arrival was giving way to a more wary stiffness. She was, St John suspected, preparing herself to parry the advances that she obviously expected to follow. Even if Luthor could not see it for himself, St John already knew that Lois wasn't interested in Lex in anything other than a business capacity, a view that was confirmed by her next words. "Lex," Lois said, "you invited me here, offering me an interview. Perhaps we could make a start? I was wondering-"
Luthor, as oblivious to Lois's body language as to her words, continued showering her with compliments, cutting through her words and thereby forcing Lois into silence.
St John placed the main course — perfectly cooked salmon steaks with an assortment of baby vegetables — in front of Luthor and Lois, retreated back into his corner and continued to follow the one-sided conversation. What little taste and judgement Luthor had used in his selection of compliments during the first course gave way to a less restrained litany of comments. Moreover his words were beginning to slur. If St John hadn't known how little Luthor had drunk during the evening, he would have sworn that Luthor was suffering from the effects of too much alcohol. "Your breasts," he said. "So perfectly rounded… I imagine them like two scoops of vanilla ice-cream topped with cherries." He propped his head on his chin as he gazed in Lois's general direction with something akin to wonder.
Lois's comment, "That's a rather forward thing to say to someone you've barely met. It could be misinterpreted as… misguided interest?" went unheeded.
"Like two mountains of latent pleasure waiting to be explored."
"Okay, already! I get the picture. You don't have to go on!"
It was then that Lois lost interest in her food. From that moment she did little more than push the fish around her plate. She eyed Luthor out of the corner of her eyes and glanced down at her purse a couple of times. St John knew that she was weighing up her options and working out whether or not she could leave. He wondered fleetingly what had kept her here this long. A misplaced notion of politeness? He doubted it; St John knew of her reputation and was aware that she could be caustically outspoken if she so chose. A reluctance to give up on the story she had hoped to get? Possibly. Or a fear that if she left now she would never again be offered the same level of access to the billionaire? That seemed the most likely explanation to St John. After all, she had worked for months to get this close to Luthor; who knew how long it would take her to get to this position again? As St John cleared away the debris of the main course, he saw Luthor reach out a hand in the general direction of Lois's cleavage. Lois batted it away before it reached his target.
"Right," said Lois. "That's it! I've had enough! I'm leaving!" She pushed her chair back, picked up her purse and moved to stand.
"Sit down," Lex cajoled her. "Where are you going? We haven't had dessert. Although, I suppose we could save dessert for later… You haven't seen the bedroom yet, have you?"
"Lex…" said Lois, a hint of danger tingeing her voice.
The dessert, coming at that moment, was designed to amaze and St John could see Lois force herself to resist its siren song. "Chocolate!" she breathed. "I love chocolate!"
"I know you do," slurred Luthor. "It's jus' one of the many things I know 'bout you. You love choc'late, Lois. Tha's why I had Chef Pierre — or was it Chef Antoine, or Felipe, or Boris? I don't rem'ber for sure — make this. Jus' for you, my dear."
Lois stared at Luthor. "So," she said scathingly, "you can hear what I'm saying. I suppose you do realise that's the first time you've bothered to reply to anything I've said since I arrived and said, 'Hello, Lex. How are you?'"
Luthor watched with unfocused eyes as she continued.
"Well, since you're actually listening to me, hear this! I'm leaving. Now. Maybe we can reschedule the interview for a time when you're in your right mind."
"No, Lois! Please… Don't leave me! The bed is made up and-"
"Bed?! I-" Lois's mouth flailed open for a few moments before she managed to frame a coherent sentence. "I've tried my darnedest to be tactful this evening, but clearly you wouldn't recognise tact if you walked into it, so this time let me be blunt. If you thought all those lousy lines you've used on me this evening would earn you bed rights, you are a bigger fool than I ever gave you credit for. Even if I wasn't seeing someone, I wouldn't-"
"You're… you're seeing someone? Lois, you wound me!" Luthor's eyes grew wide, almost like saucers as he mimed in an unsteady and exaggerated manner plunging a dagger into his heart. "Who is it? Who stands between us and our love?"
"Oh!" said Lois in disgust. "There's no getting through to you, is there? Okay, let me spell this out as clearly as I can." She took a deep breath, crossed her arms across her chest and said, enunciating each syllable clearly, "Lex. If I was in the market for an affair — and I mean this in the nicest possible way — I wouldn't want to have it with you! Have you got that?" Then, not waiting for an answer to her question, she turned to face St John and said, "Could you call me a cab, please?"
Luthor, apparently resigning himself to the inevitable, said, "Nigel will take you home," before he slumped down into his chair and abruptly passed out.
Saturday 19 November 1993
Luthor flicked his wrist to send a hundred dollar bill into the flames of his open fire.
St John paused on the threshold of the room and watched with numb fascination. No matter that the amounts his employer was wasting were insignificant in terms of his immense wealth, this was abnormal behaviour for a man who set great importance upon the accumulation of riches. Something, St John deduced, was definitely amiss.
"I say," Nigel said, deliberately keeping his tone light, "is everything all right?"
"No, Nigel," Luthor replied sombrely. "Something terrible's happened. Something… catastrophic."
St John watched as yet another bill was lost to the fire. In an attempt to determine what had prompted this uncharacteristic behaviour St John probed further, "The collapse of the world financial markets?"
The question was met with a wry chuckle. "No, Nigel. Something worse. Far worse." Luthor sighed as he stepped away from the fire place, turning his back to St John as he proceeded to make his confession. "Not like you. Or any normal person perhaps… but in my own perverted way I've… I've succumbed. I've… fallen in love. Hopelessly. Eternally." Luthor turned back to face St John, evidently curious to see what the Englishman's reaction would be. "It's the perfume. Your mind's clouded," said St John, letting only the tiniest fraction of his consternation show.
"No, Nigel," said Luthor. "I'm really in love with her. I'm doomed."
St John had never before done anything to try to discourage Luthor from upsetting established relationships, but his employer's unrequited love now added a new variable into the equation. St John was loyal enough to Luthor to have no concern over Lois Lane's well-being. He was, however, duty bound to do what he could to protect his employer's interests so he found himself compelled to ask, trying to inject some reality into Luthor's dreams, "You are aware she's seeing someone, aren't you?"
"Yes. Kent. But I'm certain it's not serious. It won't last. You saw the way she kissed Superman earlier, at the airfield. He may have been affected by the pheromone spray, but Lois certainly wasn't. Somehow I don't think she was thinking about Kent then, do you?" St John, remembering the kiss he had witnessed from the car, had to admit that Luthor had a point. "So I'd say that she can be pretty flexible when she chooses to be. She'll come round to my way of thinking, given time. And encouragement."
"Do you really think so?"
"Yes, Nigel. I do."
"So, how do you intend to encourage her, sir?"
"I'll woo her, of course, Nigel. I'll give her time to forget about last night's debacle, then I will woo her. Shower her with gifts and flowers."
Luthor lapsed into silence as an incongruous dreamy expression settled on his face. St John, feeling strangely out of his depth, hovered for a few moments, waiting to see if Luthor would say anything further. When he did not, St John asked, "Is there anything else you need tonight?"
"No," said Luthor. "You can go."
St John watched Luthor slightly uneasily for a moment longer then said tentatively, "Good night then, sir."
Luthor nodded fractionally. "Good night, Nigel."
St John's guns were beautiful and he maintained them carefully. After leaving Luthor, St John descended to his own apartment, got them out, and began the task of cleaning them.
The guns had been used many times and, because they were evidence of crimes too numerous to count, St John knew that he took risks by keeping them. Sometimes, when he was being logical, St John would consider disposing of them lest they ever be found and traced back to him. But as soon as the thought took form he would dismiss it because he treasured them and cared for them as much — if not more — as Luthor treasured any of his priceless objets d'art. More than that, though, they carried with them memories of jobs done. The guns were mementoes — trophies — of St John's kills. They were part of him.
St John sat at his kitchen counter and polished the barrel of one of his rifles, caressing it with the kind of light touch that men usually reserved only for beautiful women or fast cars. He then proceeded to oil the gun's mechanism, regarding it with obvious affection before moving on to the next one. With his hands thus occupied in tasks which had become so automatic over time that the activities required only minimal concentration, he allowed his thoughts to wander.
Inevitably he found them drifting to the scene in Luthor's smoking room. St John had no problems with the undeniable fact that Luthor was promiscuous by nature or that Luthor found pleasure in sex. Even though Nigel got his pleasure from more unusual activities, he could nonetheless recognise that Luthor's appetites occasionally transcended physical desire and metamorphosed into imperatives that had to be fulfilled no matter what. However, Luthor had never shown any real signs of having genuine affection for his partners; any emotional attachment he had professed had invariably been a sham.
But tonight had been different. The thought that Luthor might be in love, that he might seek to inject meaning into a relationship, disturbed St John in a way that he did not understand.
St John disassembled a pistol with nimble fingers and began the cleaning process again.
Had Luthor shared his confession with Lois herself, St John would have dismissed it as so much play acting. That Luthor had seen fit to share his own unease with St John forced St John to take more seriously the notion that Luthor was indeed falling under Lois's spell than he would otherwise have done; Luthor had nothing to gain from letting St John know his thoughts. So, St John decided, Luthor, at the very least, was under the impression that he was falling in love. St John found the reality of it harder to accept; love was not an emotion with which Luthor had a great deal of experience. Maybe — even probably — Luthor had misinterpreted his feelings. Maybe Luthor had confused some transitory feeling for something more enduring; maybe his current interest in Lois was a temporary aberration that would quickly pass.
St John reassembled the last of the guns, put it back in his gun cabinet, and locked it away.
Maybe Luthor's current preoccupation was, as St John had suggested, the side effect of having been exposed to Miranda's blasted pheromone compound. St John hoped it was as simple as that because the thought that anything might upset the equilibrium of their relationship filled him with unease.
Tuesday 1 February 1994
St John's eyes blinked open as, with a flash of intuition, his mind was filled with the image of dark hair, brown eyes, a slender figure and a full mouth that talked too much. Lois Lane had, indeed, upset the equilibrium of his relationship with Luthor.
Having made the connection to Lois, it was easy to trace more of Luthor's odd behaviour. There had been that strange incident with the bunker for example…
Monday 3 January 1994
St John's brow furrowed and his eyes narrowed with concentration as, crouched down in an uncomfortable position, he wrestled to unscrew a particularly stubborn wall panel. Wearing his Chief of Security hat, he was busily putting together a sophisticated surveillance system for Luthor's underground bunker. Although he had been working on the project for several months, there had never before been any sense of urgency; now the imminent arrival of the Nightfall asteroid meant that he suddenly was faced with an inflexible deadline.
He swore loudly as the screwdriver slipped out of the screw groove then, with a sigh, he straightened up, easing the kinks out of his back. Glancing at his watch, he decided that he could afford to take just a few moment's break. St John eyed with disgust the circuit board he wanted to install — a job which had to be done before the first of the bunker's occupants arrived to take up residence lest they were made aware that their every activity was being monitored — as it lay on the floor a few feet away and he flexed his fingers.
The silence, five hundred metres below street level and behind sixteen inches of reinforced concrete walls, broken only by the whirr of air conditioning and the faint hum of the strip lights, was almost eerie after the cacophony of the city above. St John wasn't entirely comfortable down here — he'd sometimes wondered if he wasn't slightly claustrophobic — and as a result, the unflappable Englishman was finding himself feeling uncharacteristically nervous. His palms were damp and his fingers were stiff from grasping his screwdriver too tightly. However, he would have been the first to admit that the alternative confronting him if the bunker wasn't made ready by the deadline was far worse. Although St John had faced deathon a number of occasions, and work-related dangers didn't, as a general rule, faze him, the thought of death by asteroid wasn't one that St John found appealing. Thanks to Luthor, however, St John was more confident than most that his safety was assured. He had a place booked on Luthor's ark and for that he was grateful.
Footsteps coming along the hall and the murmur of hushed voices, one male and one female, alerted him to the imminent arrival of two people. Instinctively he moved to secrete both himself and the circuit board from view.
As the newcomers moved closer, St John could make out the owners of the voices. The male was Luthor — no real surprise there. The woman, however, was… Lois Lane? What, St John wondered, was she doing here? Her name had never appeared on any of the lists of invitees. She did not, after all, have any role to play in Luthor's organisation and he had hitherto been strict about ensuring that everyone who was to share the bunker had a function to fulfil. St John strained to hear the conversation. "…room for two hundred people… Supplies to last three years. Tools, implements for farming and manufacture for when we re-emerge."
"So, if the world dies, you live."
"The survival of the species does not depend upon the supply of all of its members. In fact, had the dinosaurs been possessed of a slightly larger brain, they too might have been spared their fate. Fortunately for us, they didn't. Now… the chance is ours."
"Did you want me to… write about this?" Lois, St John noticed, was sounding very uncertain. He could understand her confusion; what purpose did Luthor have in bringing her down here?
"No. I seek no publicity. In fact, considering the circumstances, I think advertising the existence of a place like this might be… somewhat cruel."
"So, why am I here?"
There was a pause, a few footsteps, the clink of a heavy metal door being opened, then Lois's stunned voice saying, "This is my apartment."
Her apartment? St John frowned. He hadn't been in that particular room in the last few days, but the last time he had been there it had been little more than an empty shell. How had it been converted so fast into a copy of her home? And more importantly, why?
"Well," he heard Lex say, a slightly self-deprecating tone creeping into his words, "a reasonable facsimile thereof. I hope you like it."
"Of course I like it." She sounded shocked but in the way that a person might use when they are also flattered. "I decorated it. But I'm a little confused."
"I'm offering you a chance, Lois. To become a passenger on this ark. To be my special guest on mankind's next great adventure."
St John heard more shuffling around, a feminine sigh, and then the words, "Lex, why me?"
"Because I care. And because I must admit that three years would be a long time without… companionship."
"Ah. Well, I, uh, don't know… I…"
"Think about it. I'll await your decision." His steps were measured as he exited the room. St John examined his nails as he reflected that he knew what Lois's answer would be, even if Luthor did not; she had rejected him before and she would most likely do so again. He was only surprised that she had vacillated this long. St John could only surmise that she was overwhelmed by the lengths that Luthor had gone to to make her feel at home. He wondered what Luthor was reading into her hesitation.
Scant seconds after Luthor left, even before the door had time to swing shut, she ran after him. "Lex…"
"May I send someone to pack your personal belongings?" he asked smoothly.
"I can't stay here!" she said, clearly agitated.
"Lois… Mob rule is not a pretty sight. You don't have to see it."
"I do! If what that asteroid does is destroy the world as we know it, I have to be there to see what takes its place! This could be the best comeback in history. And besides…" She trailed off into silence.
"Besides?" asked Luthor.
"I… You know… I'm… seeing someone. I have been for a couple of months now…"
"Kent." St John, well versed with the finer nuances of Luthor's behaviour, could hear the disappointment and disapproval Luthor tried to mask.
"Yes," agreed Lois softly, her voice receding into the distance as they moved away from St John. "And right now he needs me. More, I think, than he's ever needed me…" Something in Luthor's expression must have prompted her to expand on the comment because she said, "He's got amnesia. I shouldn't have left him to come here, but…"
"But you were curious? You wanted to find you what I wanted?"
They turned a corner and St John could hear no more.
After waiting for a few moments to ensure that they were really gone, St John stepped out of his hiding place. Then, driven by curiosity, he made his way to the room that Luthor had shown Lois.
Standing on the threshold of the quarters that should have housed several people, St John looked at the accommodations that had been prepared for her. He shook his head, nonplussed, not just at Luthor's uncharacteristic largesse, but also at the amount of effort had gone into making this room ready. Luthor demanded miracles from his staff but, even so, this was impressive. It also spoke of a large degree of familiarity with Lois's apartment. St John dismissed his musings as being inappropriate; he had a job to do, and he was allowing himself to fall behind schedule.
Tuesday 1 February 1994
St John had dismissed his musings then, but now he was beginning to wonder if he shouldn't have given the matter more consideration, if not at the time then certainly as soon as the danger had passed.
He was certainly thinking about it now and he didn't like the conclusions that he was reaching. To have replicated Lois's dwelling in that way, as he'd noted at the time, spoke of intelligence gathering on an impressive scale. Luthor, either in person or second-hand, through the efforts of his minions, had spied on the reporter. In as much as Lexcorp spied on hundreds — perhaps thousands — of people, St John didn't find that thought particularly shocking. However, Lois Lane was of little strategic importance to the corporation; that made this intelligence unique in St John's experience because it was apparently prompted by personal rather than professional motives. What else, he wondered, had Luthor done? Had he bugged her apartment? Tapped her phone? Intercepted her mail? The questions rose rapidly in St John's mind, chasing one after the other, leaving behind a feeling of exasperated irritation in their wake. Luthor, St John was beginning to suspect, was obsessed with the Lane woman; that obsession was clouding his judgement and costing him the respect that St John had once had for him.
That realisation brought with it a decision on St John's part. He would meet with Jopling. What harm could it do?
Thursday 3 February 1994
St John stamped his feet and clapped his hands together, cursing Jopling's tardiness and watching with disgust as his huffed breath plumed out in white clouds. He pulled the collar of his overcoat more closely around his neck, determined to prevent any more sleet from getting in through the crannies of his clothing.
In an effort to divert his thoughts from his discomfort, St John concentrated on the man he had come to meet. He had checked Jopling out as far as he was able and had determined that he was, or had been until very recently, employed by the US airforce. The most recent intelligence that St John had been able to access indicated that Jopling held the rank of lieutenant colonel.
His tactic of thinking about Jopling didn't help; St John's cheeks were being assaulted by the bitter wind and his toes were icy within his shoes. He decided to give Jopling five more minutes; if he hadn't shown by then, St John would cut his losses and leave. He didn't want the job that much.
His years with Luthor had spoiled him, St John reflected morosely, making him forget the discomfort of clandestine meetings such as this. If he had remembered just how uncomfortable they could be, he doubted that he would have ventured forth to meet Jeremiah Jopling. The inclement weather was keeping all right-thinking people indoors and he could see only two other people in Centennial Park; the others were a particularly foolhardy jogger and a sullen-looking man out walking a dog.
St John wasn't so naive as to think that there were only three people around, however. He was sure that at the very least Jopling was watching from somewhere nearby, making sure that he had, as ordered, come alone.
Just as he moved to leave, St John heard the scrunch of gravel from six paces away. He schooled his face into a neutral expression, refusing to let the newcomer know that he had succeeded in sneaking up on him. He turned, inclined his head slightly, extended his hand and said, "Jeremiah Jopling, I presume." St John deliberately omitted Jopling's rank; he didn't want to show how much information he already had. He covertly assessed Jopling, taking in the fact that, once lean, Jopling now was plumped out from too many rich dinners. Any softness in the man ended there, however. Unlike St John, Jopling seemed impervious to the cold; his bald head was bare, his jacket thin, and his neck unprotected from the elements. Moreover, there was a flinty look to his eyes that suggested their owner was both shrewd and ruthless. Jopling's appraisal of St John was far less discreet. His eyes raked the Englishman's body and, seeing that St John didn't flinch under his scrutiny, he smiled faintly with approval. Then he nodded abruptly, once up and down, apparently deciding that he was satisfied with what he saw.
St John waited for Jopling to speak. When he did he got straight to the point, foregoing any pleasantries. St John found himself approving of such a businesslike attitude. "As I said on the phone, I've got a job for you," said Jopling.
"Who is the target?"
Jopling reached a hand reddened from the cold into his inside breast pocket and fished out a photograph.
St John took it in his gloved fingers and considered the picture. The target was an older man, not tall, but with rigid stance that immediately cried military to St John's practised eye. That instinctive reaction made him feel uneasy; he hated cleaning house for others.
"His name is Burton Newcomb. He's a retired general. Lives alone in Metropolis."
St John frowned. Something about the name was familiar though it took him a while to place it. Finally he remembered an article some weeks before in the Daily Planet. Newcomb had had something to do with uncovering Bureau 39's activities…
Jopling interpreted St John's thoughtful silence as hesitation. "A million dollars," he said, offering the carrot. "No questions asked. That's the deal."
"Some questions," said St John, "are inevitable."
"Perhaps," conceded Jopling. "But you'll be working on a strictly need to know basis."
"I haven't said that I will take the job yet," St John pointed out.
"You're here, aren't you?" said Jopling. "I think you will."
St John knew Jopling was right but he didn't say so. Instead he shifted the topic of conversation.
"What are the repercussions of his death likely to be? A retired military man might be considered a rather… visible… target."
"No repercussions, at least not from us. He's too much of a loose cannon to be left alone. Leaks information, you understand. And, if you are as good as I've heard, no one will be able to trace the killing back to you."
St John nodded slowly. "So this is a punishment killing."
"It could be," said Jopling.
"Why do you need me? Why not deal with him yourself?"
"You came highly recommended. I want him taken out, but my organisation is… on probation, shall we say? So I'm contracting the job out."
The probation comment gelled St John's hunch about Bureau 39 into a certainty. Perversely reassured by the idea of working for such a disreputable agency, he said, "Can I ask who recommended me?"
Jopling gave a smile that failed to reach his eyes. "That is strictly need to know. And you don't. Confidentiality, you understand. Now, will you take the job or not?"
St John gave the matter precisely three seconds thought then said, "Yes. You'll pay me five hundred thousand dollars before and the remainder upon the successful completion of the task. I want the money in used notes. No consecutive numbers."
Jopling nodded. "That can be arranged."
"So, where do I find this man?" asked St John.
"His address is on the back of the photo but he's a pretty cagey devil. You won't get him standing in front of any windows. However…" Jopling paused.
St John's eyebrows rose and his expression prompted Jopling to continue.
"However, he will be at the Palais Theatre on Monday evening. He'll be sitting in the upper circle. Seat A10. On the aisle."
"The Palais," mused Nigel thoughtfully. "That's where Les Miserables is playing, isn't it?"
Monday 7 February 1994
The theatre was deserted at three o'clock in the afternoon as St John, dressed in black and carrying a small rucksack and a coil of rope, made his way up the fire escape at the back of the building. As he stepped onto the flat concrete roof he mused that, really, security was a joke.
The lock on the roof's skylight took mere moments to pick. St John opened it and peered into the gloom beyond. Then, satisfied, he stepped back and fastened one end of the rope to the metal frame of the fire escape. The other end he dropped through the opening.
St John adjusted the bag into a comfortable position on his shoulder. Then, grabbing hold of the rope with both hands, he proceeded to shimmy down into the theatre. The rope brought him down to one end of a gantry high above the stage. So far, everything was going according to plan. Now all he had to do was set up his equipment, make himself as comfortable as he possibly could under the circumstances and wait.
Through the infrared sight on his gun he could make out the seat that, later on, he knew would be occupied by his target. While, ideally, he liked to carry out his assassinations in private where there was no chance of witnesses catching a glimpse of him, he had to admit that carrying out the deed in such a public place did have certain advantages, not the least of which was the fact that he knew precisely where his target was going to be for three solid hours. His lips curved sadistically as the phrase "sitting duck" flitted through his mind.
He had done his homework well. He had spent much of the weekend listening to the Les Miserables soundtrack. He had also sat through Saturday's matinee and he had determined that there was a perfect moment for him to carry out the deed. The sound effects of gun fire during the show would mask that of his own.
"Do you hear the people sing?" demanded the chorus, prompting St John to silently bemoan the fact that, yes, indeed he did.
The house lights had been switched on at five o'clock and the jabber of voices shortly after that had alerted St John to the fact that the theatre staff had arrived and were making their checks for the readiness of this evening's performance. The show had started on the dot of seven, since when he had waited patiently as the performance crawled onwards.
Les Miserables wasn't his thing. All those raggedy people leading desolate lives with precious little reward on Earth, only the promise of eternal bliss and an eventual place in heaven — a heaven in which St John did not believe — to keep them going just didn't engage his interest. It was, to his mind, an utterly unsatisfactory tale. The only character with whom he could remotely identify was an inn-keeper-turned-thief called Thenardier because they both held the view that the best way to happiness, or at least material comforts, was to take what they wanted from others less dishonest than themselves. Not for them the ideals that drove the story's agitators to man a barricade and stand against the French authorities.
St John flexed his fingers and toes, trying to dispel their stiffness. His position had proven to be even more perfect that he had hoped. The lights immediately behind him blinded the performers on the stage to his presence and, situated so high above the stage, it was most unlikely that anyone in the audience would think to glance up, let along spot his black-clad form. Although he'd positioned the gun earlier and was satisfied that it was directed at Newcomb's seat, he kept checking his aim through the infra-red sights. St John knew that, if necessary, he'd be able to fire blind into the audience and still have a reasonable degree of confidence that the bullet would find its mark. However, he would only do so as a last resort. He liked to take as few chances as possible and he liked to see his bullets doing their job. He took pride in his work.
On stage, Valjean sang his prayer seeking the intercession of God, pleading for the life of Marius, a young student who had thrown in his lot with the revolutionaries.
Above, St John felt his breath quicken and he knew that his heart rate was also increasing. Mere minutes away from the moment he had chosen for the deed, he felt the familiar rush of adrenaline. Some people got their kicks from riding roller-coasters or bungee jumping. For St John, there was nothing to beat the high he got from committing acts of violence.
St John listened as, below him, Gavroche was shot. Then the story's final battle commenced.
The sound of St John's gun was lost in amongst the blanks being fired by the special effects co-ordinator. He took just long enough to check that his bullet had found his mark and smiled with satisfaction as he saw that death had been instantaneous and that none of the target's neighbours had noticed anything amiss. His breath caught in his throat and a small moan of ecstasy threatened to escape from his throat. He suppressed it ruthlessly; there would be plenty of time to enjoy himself later. As he'd hoped, he had a narrow window of opportunity to make good his escape; nobody had noticed anything untoward yet, but come the end of the show, discovery of the deed would be inevitable.
Now came the riskiest part of this endeavour. St John disassembled his gun in seconds, secreted it in his rucksack, then pushing the bag in front of him, he slivered on his belly, taking care not to knock any of the lights as he moved past them. When he reached the rope he'd left dangling earlier, he grasped hold of it and began to climb with an agility that many younger men would have envied.
St John lay in his bed, his black silk pyjamas slick against the black silk sheets. His body was heavy with a languor better than the afterglow of any sexual encounter he'd ever had. It was the afterglow of a killing which, as always, had given him a high better than any drugs known to man. He closed his eyes bringing the image of Newcomb's body, glimpsed just fleetingly in the moments after death but memorised, up in his mind and reliving again and again the moment he'd pulled the trigger. He licked his lips and sighed, satiated.
He never felt so alive as when he was taking someone else's life.
There were days when St John loved his work.
Tuesday 8 February 1994
St John tilted his head to one side and squinted as he shaved, tidying up the edges of his beard. Snatches of dialogue drifted through from the bedroom where he had left his radio alarm playing softly.
"… the body of Burton Newcomb was discovered as theatre-goers moved towards the aisle at the end of the performance … police have no leads … apparently motiveless killing …"
Although the euphoria of the previous evening had passed, enough of his pleasure lingered to lift his normal melancholy mood towards something approaching contentment. As he listened to the newsreader's commentary St John had to force himself to suppress an automatic smile lest he nick himself with the razor.
"… eyewitnesses were at a loss to explain the death. They were all unanimous in saying that they had noticed nothing amiss during the performance…"
St John fastidiously cleaned the razor under running water then washed the last traces of cream off his face, patting his skin dry with a freshly laundered towel that was soft to the touch and smelt strongly of fabric conditioner.
As he moved into his bedroom and started to dress he heard the newsreader say, "… speculation that the sound effects may have been used to mask the sound of the shot… From the trajectory of the bullet, police have determined that the murderer must have been positioned…"
St John began to whistle snatches of Elgar's Pomp And Circumstance March number 1 flatly as he tied his shoe laces.
"… anyone with information is asked to phone the police on … All information will be treated in the strictest confid-"
The commentary cut out in mid-word as St John reached across to turn the radio off. He checked his tie in the mirror and, satisfied that it was perfectly straight, he exited his apartment.
St John's good mood gave way to curiosity as he turned to lock the door because, propped up against its frame, he espied an anonymous brown envelope. Slightly larger than ten by eight inches, it felt stiff when St John cautiously picked it up. He slit the envelope open by inserting his right forefinger under the flap, pulled out its contents, and felt his curiosity metamorphose into something bleaker.
The photos were clear, with time and date stamps burned into the images. There were approximately twenty in all, variously showing his meeting with Jopling, and his arrival and his departure from the Palais Theatre.
St John leaned back against the wall, clutching the pictures to his chest with trembling hands. He should have known that there were spies everywhere, that his life had ceased to be his own the day he had joined Luthor's payroll. He suddenly felt distinctly nauseous.
Who had left the photos for him? he wondered. Forcing himself to be logical, St John realised that, although there was no indication as to where the missive had come from, it had to have been delivered by someone with access to the upper reaches of the Lexcorp Tower. That meant that its sender could have been one of only a handful of people. He didn't think that it had come from Luthor himself; Luthor would be more direct in responding to St John's clandestine activities. So, someone else must have left it for him to find, but that still left the question of why. St John quickly ruled out the possibility of blackmail. No one would dare do such a thing so close to their master. So, if not blackmail, then what? A warning that someone knew what he had done?
He had to hope that the photographs were a benign warning that someone else, perhaps Asabi, knew his loyalty was not all that it could be. So long as they were nothing more significant than that, he could ensure that he took heed of the second chance he'd been given to behave better in the future. Guilt, along with a healthy appreciation of what loss of favour would mean, made St John resolve to tie himself more closely to his employer. His loyalty would be absolute from now on.
St John stared down at the photos again, the look on his face the closest he could ever come to reflecting despair. In his sudden panic over the existence of evidence of his crime, he found himself ruing the day that he had ever heard the names Jeremiah Jopling and Burton Newcomb. It was, St John feared, his own weakness, his own lust for depraved pleasures, that had allowed him to give into temptation. All his rationalising about Luthor's erratic behaviour and the influence of Lois Lane upon him had been just that — rationalisations to justify what he had done, and nothing more. He'd used them as justifications for a deed for which there could be no justification. What business was it of his if Luthor chose to pursue Lois Lane anyway? Luthor didn't need — had never needed — St John's approval to do anything.
St John sighed. Well, he thought, what was done couldn't be undone. He'd made his bed. Now he'd have to lie in it. At least, he thought with a flash of grim humour, with the million dollars he'd been paid, he could afford a very good mattress.
Thursday 10 February 1994
Luthor's mobile phone vibrated silently during the second act of Madame Butterfly. He lowered his opera glasses, reluctantly dragging his attention away from the member of the audience he'd been scrutinising, then pulled the phone from the breast pocket of his jacket, read its illuminated screen and, in hushed tones, politely made his excuses to his host and fellow guests. If the visiting heads of state were disappointed to be thus denied an opportunity to conduct business with him during the interval, it was too bad. This call took precedence over both the heads of state and his observation of Lois Lane.
Luthor exited into the theatre's empty corridors. Holding the phone to his ear as he walked, he said, "Yes?"
"I have the information for you," said the voice at the other end of the connection.
"Where are you?" asked Luthor perfunctorily.
"Outside the theatre."
"I'm on my way." Luthor cut the connection abruptly then lengthened his stride, only just resisting the urge to break into a run.
On the steps of the building he paused for a moment, scanning the area for his target. Then, spotting a bulky, bare-headed man dressed in an unseasonably light jacket and carrying a briefcase, Luthor began to move again. He schooled his expression into one of polite impassivity, determined not to betray himself by allowing his impatience to show. He strolled down the steps at a leisurely pace.
The other man nodded at his approach and walked across to meet him.
"Jeremiah." Luthor held out his hand to be shaken. "Good to see you," he said, and for once he actually meant it.
"Lex," acknowledged Jopling.
Luthor eyed Jopling and fleetingly wondered why he hadn't killed the man years ago. Allowing Jopling to live after that unfortunate episode at college had been a risky thing to do. But then Luthor reflected that Jopling was still alive because he was useful.
When they'd first met, Luthor had cultivated Jopling for his contacts. Subsequently, when Luthor had developed his own social networks, he had tolerated the continued relationship because Jopling's information was invariably helpful. In the early days of Jopling's military career he had sold that information cheaply; Luthor had profited from it greatly as he picked up various military contracts. As time had passed, Jopling's career had developed along with both the quality of the intelligence he offered and the price he charged for it. Jopling should have been looking forward to a very comfortable retirement; he would have been had he not gambled Luthor's funds away.
Over the years, even before the acquisition of the pictures of Jopling's meeting with St John, Luthor's hold over Jopling had become virtually unshakeable. The same was no longer true of Jopling's hold over Luthor. Perhaps Jopling didn't realise it, but the incident at college had lost its power to concern Luthor as the years had passed. Luthor perpetuated the myth that the two men continued to prey on each other's weaknesses, but he — unlike Jopling — had no illusions as to who held real control within their relationship.
Luthor gestured towards a nearby bench. Following his lead, Jopling moved to sit down. Luthor remained standing, not deigning to put himself on the same level of his companion, preferring instead to look down on him. Luthor suppressed a smile, knowing that Jopling couldn't stand up again without losing face.
"So," said Luthor, "you're now director of Bureau 39. Congratulations."
"Thank you," said Jopling. "And thanks for putting me on to St John. He really delivered. Did a very professional job."
Luthor smiled fractionally. "I'm sure he did. Now, I believe you have something for me."
Jopling nodded. "It's ironic really. We took out Newcomb because he leaked information, but I'm giving all that information to you, and then some. I guess it's a question of who the information goes to."
"And how much you're being paid," interjected Luthor.
"Yes," conceded Jopling with a forthrightness that Luthor found surprising. "I trust you to be… discreet."
"Of course." Luthor smiled slightly ferally.
Jopling snapped open the fastenings on his briefcase and retrieved from within it a buff folder. "As promised, in return for St John, here's all we have on Superman. I hope it's of some use to you."
Luthor held out his hand to take the file and was surprised when Jopling didn't immediately hand it over. Instead he said, "I don't know what you intend to do with the information, but I'll tell you this… Whatever you do, you'll most likely have the Bureau's blessing, albeit unofficially."
"Jeremiah?" prompted Luthor.
"After the Trask fiasco and the business at the warehouse a few months back, the Bureau has been under pressure to… clean up its act. They were public relations disasters. Our agenda hasn't changed, of course, but we've got to be seen to lay off Superman. Politics, you know."
"So," continued Jopling, "if you can do anything to get rid of Superman without us having to act… Well, we certainly won't complain. You understand?"
"I understand perfectly, Jeremiah. And again, thank you."
Luthor's wing chair was positioned in the soft pool of light cast by an adjacent standard lamp. The details of the room's contents gave way to blocky outlines as the darkness claimed its corners. The only noise came from the faint rumble of the late night traffic echoing up from the streets far below.
He pulled deeply on his cigar then he exhaled, releasing a cloud of dense smoke. He watched it idly as it meandered upwards then dispersed to join the fog collecting in the room more generally. Life, he thought, was good. St John, in betraying the spirit if not the letter of their working arrangement, had unwittingly given Luthor an additional measure of control over him. All Luthor had had to do was to allow St John to know that someone was aware of his recent activities. St John did not need to know, however, that it was Luthor who had directed Jopling in his direction in the first place or even that Luthor, himself, knew what he had done. In fact it was more fun this way, watching the normally imperturbable Englishman walk on eggshells, waiting for the other shoe to fall.
More than that, though, Luthor had taken a few steps forward in his campaign against Superman. Knowledge was, after all, power and, thanks to Jopling, his pool of knowledge about the alien had expanded above the infinitesimal. Absentmindedly, Luthor reached across to flick through Jopling's file, the contents with which he had familiarised himself several hours before. Perhaps, to others, the contents of the file would have been frustratingly thin, but Luthor savoured every tiny scrap of information like a connoisseur. He smiled with satisfaction; how could he not when, among other things, he had finally learned a little about Superman's physiology and about the mysterious rock?
Now Luthor's endeavours had been given direction, perhaps it was time for him to fund some research. And he knew just where to begin.
To be continued in Learning Curves III: Discoveries …